Sliding Toward Damascus

How Syria's civil war crept into the heart of Baghdad -- then went boom.

Behind the numbing regularity of Iraq's car bombs is the much quieter sound of a country slowly imploding.

The targets these days aren't usually the fortress-like government ministries or security installations -- they are regular Iraqis. On Sept. 20, bombs exploded in a Sunni mosque near Samarra, killing at least 15 people. The attack capped a week of violence that also saw at least 30 people killed on Sept. 17 in coordinated bombings that targeted Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad still mourning the victims of previous attacks. The bombers intended to cause the maximum number of casualties -- detonating their explosives at the end of the day, when Iraqis crowd into markets and cafes.

More than 4,000 civilians have been killed so far this year, the highest death toll since Iraq climbed out of civil war five years ago. Any wreckage is now quickly hauled away, as the government in Baghdad has little capacity for forensic investigations. In many neighborhoods, the black funeral banners draped over brick walls and concrete blast barriers are the only lasting signs of repeated explosions. Apart from civilians, hundreds of soldiers and police, as well as officials from the Interior and Justice ministries, have been killed.

Many of these attacks are the handiwork of al Qaeda, which has made clear that it intends to foster a civil war in Iraq. The jihadi group's targeting of markets, cafes, and mosques seems aimed at showing Iraqis that government security forces can't protect them -- potentially pushing them into the arms of the Shiite militias and Sunni extremists who were at the forefront of sectarian violence during the worst days of Iraq's civil war.

"We are at war with al Qaeda," says Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan. Other government officials point a finger at a wider array of suspects, such as former Baathists and regional powers, who they say are trying to destabilize Baghdad's Shiite-led government.

Iraqis have survived worse than the latest rise in attacks -- multiple wars, occupation, and the recent brutal civil war. But the latest violence, coupled with a seemingly permanent political crisis and rampant corruption, is bleeding the country of its vast potential.

"Iraqi society is breaking apart," says Uday al-Rubaiee, 24, who dreams of more than working in an office and bracing for the next attack. He said many of his friends, expecting that their country is in store for far worse, are leaving Iraq. "This is the biggest loss. We can't dream of prosperity anymore."

At the Baghdad International Airport, where a few years ago companies took up a collection to keep the air-conditioning running, a largely cosmetic makeover has polished some of the terminal's rougher edges. But perched on the vinyl seats, amid the security contractors and businessmen, are families clutching documents in plastic bags with the logo of the International Organization for Migration, which continues to ferry Iraqis to refuge abroad, a decade after the U.S. invasion.

More than 2 million Iraqi refugees have left the country since 2003. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis still reside within Iraq but are unable to return to their homes -- and they may not be able to do so for some time, as the United Nations is warning of renewed efforts at sectarian cleansing in some communities.

The Iraqi government says security has been weakened by the conflict in Syria. The raging civil war there has given a boost to al Qaeda, allowing it to send foreign fighters and suicide bombers across the porous border in numbers not seen since the jihadi movement's heyday in Iraq.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say up to 30 suicide bombers a month have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq since early summer, many of them from North Africa and the Persian Gulf states. Iraq is so afraid of Sunni extremist forces that it has built fortified barriers along its border with Syria and has closed the two main crossings with Syria for more than a year. It's a stark reversal from the past decade, when Syria took in more than a million Iraqis during the height of the sectarian violence.

Some Iraqi Shiite fighters have joined Iranian-backed militias in fighting on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government. Iran, however, has failed to persuade the Iraqi government or the Shiite religious leadership in Najaf to put their seal of approval on Iraqis joining the fight.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, on the defensive, has responded to the wave of violence at home with the type of indiscriminate arrests of Sunnis that was a hallmark of U.S. forces. Making use of sweeping anti-terrorism laws, he has rounded up hundreds of suspects in some communities. But it's not working any better for Maliki than it did for the United States: Anti-government protests broke out last year, partly in response to the arbitrary arrest, imprisonment, and even executions of Sunnis.

"The government has become part of the problem instead of part of the solution," says Hamid al-Mutlaq, a member of the security and defense committee of Iraq's parliament and part of the mainly Sunni Iraqiya bloc. "They have completely failed at reconciliation, and people are paying the cost."

Political parties are already gearing up for next year's national elections, in which Maliki is expected to seek another term. But unlike in countries where elections are won and lost in the ballot box, most Iraqis believe some of the assassinations and bombings are politically linked -- a way of laying the groundwork for the campaign to come.

The balance of power is also shifting in Iraq's Kurdish region, which has been the most stable part of the country for the past two decades. With the departure from the political scene of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who was sidelined by a stroke, Kurds go to the polls on Sept. 21 in regional elections amid a dramatically different political scene. Without Talabani to head the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party he created may very well disappear.

Politics there has been further complicated by a struggle for control in Syria's Kurdish region between Kurdish factions and Syrian Arab opposition fighters. Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq's Kurdish regional government, in August opened the gates to more than 40,000 Syrian Kurdish refugees, pledging to protect them. The move gives Barzani, already the region's most powerful Kurdish figure, an even greater claim to speak for Kurds across the region.

Iraq has massive financial resources at its disposal that could theoretically help it overcome these challenges. But even though it exports roughly $250 million of oil every day, Baghdad has proved incapable of buying stability. Analysts say that the problem is, simply, that its $120 billion annual budget is allocated based on political, not economic, needs.

"Seventy percent of the budget goes to public-sector salaries -- and the public sector is still ballooning," says Dubai-based oil expert Ruba Husari. She says government jobs are being created to buy political favors, while the relatively small allocation for public-sector investment is not nearly enough for a country still desperately in need of reconstruction.

The United States believed that in sending tens of thousands more troops to Iraq in 2007 they were laying the groundwork for stability. But while they helped drive al Qaeda out of the cities with the help of tribes that turned against the organization, the political and economic underpinnings of that stability have proved more elusive.

"The needs are enormous, whether its education or housing or roads, sewage, and water," says Husari. "All of these need resources -- and the resources are going toward security."

Photo: ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images


Stalemate's End?

Forget Rouhani. Iran's hard-line Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei might actually be open to a nuclear deal with America.

The moment of truth is coming. All the optics from Tehran -- even from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei -- indicate that Iran is gearing up for a new attempt at a nuclear deal. If a deal can't be made in the next few months, it's hard to see another opportunity when the chances would ever be this good again.

And yet skepticism about the ability of Iran's new president, Hasan Rouhani, to cut a deal is certainly warranted. Iranian presidents have much less power -- especially on foreign and security affairs -- than the supreme leader. And yes, Khamenei's recent public statements remain full of suspicion and enmity toward the West. But even Khamenei seems to be signaling his desire to find an end to the nuclear stalemate. On Sept. 17, in a meeting with senior Revolutionary Guard commanders, he addressed them on the question of "flexibility": "A wrestler can even show flexibility sometimes, but he does not forget who his rival is and what his main goal is."

Indeed, the supreme leader has been less than his usual vitriolic self when it comes to U.S. policy toward Syria. In a Sept. 11 speech, he was downright complimentary: "If [U.S. leaders] are serious about their recent outlook, this means that they have turned back from the wrong path which they have been taking during the last few weeks."

Meanwhile, ever since he took office, Rouhani has been on a public relations offensive aimed at the West and reformists within his country. His most recent salvo was an interview with NBC News in which he said he had full authority to conclude a nuclear deal with the West. He has also recently exchanged letters with President Barack Obama, overseen the release of 11 political prisoners, and cautiously warned the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps about getting involved in the political arena. When he travels to New York City next week to attend the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, Rouhani will have a chance to transform this thaw in relations into a real diplomatic opportunity.

If Iran's recent political history holds true, Rouhani has a unique window of opportunity to win sanctions relief. The last three Iranian presidents before him were able to influence policy in their first year before their powers faded. Each came into office with a strong agenda: Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's goal was economic liberalization; Mohammad Khatami aimed for a cultural opening, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad peddled a populist message. And all three were successful in making progress at the start of their terms -- though they all ran into strong resistance from the supreme leader as their tenure dragged on, which reversed their policies.

Rouhani is even better placed than his predecessors to have real influence. He enjoys support from a broad swath of the Iranian political spectrum -- from hard-liners to reformists -- in no small part because of the lessons each camp is drawing from developments across the region. Hard-liners realize that the "resistance policy" advocated by the previous team has not worked well. Resistance has brought Iran only more sanctions, led Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the brink of disaster, and lost Hezbollah the broad public support it once commanded across the region. They see Rouhani's strategy as a new approach toward the same goals, and they are willing to give it a try.

As for Iran's reformers, they look to Cairo and see what happened to deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy as a sobering lesson for what could have happened in Iran had they prevailed in 2009. A sharp confrontation with the old system and the security forces it controls, in other words, could have quickly brought about a de facto coup.

Rouhani has also made good use of the support he commands. Though his election was as much a surprise as that of his two immediate predecessors, he has quickly assembled an impressive team of like-minded, effective technocrats -- most of whom are acceptable to the hard-liners. His style is the smile, not the snarl, which disarms critics used to the previous crowd's exaggerated rhetoric.

Iran's new president does not needlessly pick fights like Ahmadinejad did, whether with foreigners over the Holocaust or young Iranians over Twitter. Rouhani's Rosh Hashanah greeting from a semiofficial Twitter account was just his style -- crafted to impress foreigners, but also framed in religious terms that gave hard-liners eager to criticize little to grab on to. Rouhani's book, National Security and Nuclear Diplomacy -- which made the case that the deals negotiated with European powers in 2003 and 2004 preserved Iran's options while forestalling international pressure -- may serve as a blueprint for his current strategy.

It would be a smart move by Khamenei -- indeed, smarter than his usual practice -- to send Rouhani out to see what kind of a nuclear deal he can get from the United States. From Khamenei's perspective, it's a win-win scenario: If his president can get a good deal which preserves Iran's nuclear options, fine. If no deal is reached, Iran will still have gained many months in which its nuclear program can progress.

It is hard to know how the recent developments about Syria have influenced Khamenei's thinking. It is possible he had already discounted the possibility of a U.S. strike on Iran, in which case the obvious U.S. reluctance to use force against Syria may come as no surprise to him. On the other hand, he has long insisted that the nuclear issue is only an excuse used by the United States to pursue its real objective of regime change in Iran, and he has similarly argued that the West's professed humanitarian concerns about Syria are a cover for its true objective of displacing Assad. Perhaps Khamenei will recalculate in the face of the evident willingness of President Barack Obama's administration to concentrate so exclusively on controlling weapons of mass destruction that it was prepared to sacrifice the Syrian opposition, and to largely ignore human rights concerns.

In his Sept. 17 speech, Khamenei referred to a passage in a book he translated 40 years ago on the revered second Shiite Imam Hassan's peace treaty with Muawiyah, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty -- a treaty the likes of which Khamenei had once vowed Iran could never be pressured into again. The treaty was entered into under great duress: Hassan agreed to it when faced with superior forces on the field of battle. Its outcome was at best mixed: The line of descent was preserved (Hassan was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed), but Hassan gave up rule over the Muslim community to Muawiyah and was years later almost certainly poisoned on Muawiyah's orders. But speaking on Sept. 17, Khamenei took a rosier view of the seventh-century peace deal: "I agree with what I called 'heroic flexibility' years ago, because such an approach is very good and necessary in certain situations, as long as we stick to our main principles."

Perhaps in this newfound respect for Hassan's treaty, Khamenei was signaling that another Hassan -- Hasan Rouhani -- may need to be equally supple in the face of superior forces, even if the results are mixed.