On August 19, 2009 twin bombings occurred at Iraq’s Foreign and Finance Ministries. Three days later, the Baghdad Operations Command announced that it had arrested a suspect, and his taped confession was later played on television. He said he was a Baathist and former policeman who put together one of the truck bombs in the Muqdadiya district of Diyala under orders from two Baathist officials in Syria. On August 25, Iraq demanded that Syria turn over the two alleged masterminds, and withdrew its ambassador, with Damascus following suit. That was the beginning of a war of words between the two countries. Baghdad demanded that Syria turn over or expel all terrorists in the country, it showed another confession on television of an Al Qaeda member who said that he was trained and financed by Syrian intelligence, called for the United Nations to conduct a criminal investigation into the bombings, and sent troops and police to patrol the Syrian border. On September 9, however, at a meeting of the Arab League, it was announced that the Syrian and Iraqi Foreign Ministers had come to an agreement to ease tensions, stop the recriminations, return the ambassadors, and form a joint security committee.
This dramatic escalation of tensions between Iraq and Syria covered over the fact that Baghdad issued two contradictory stories about the bombings. On August 29, the Interior Ministry reported that it had arrested 14 Al Qaeda members in Baghdad who it said was responsible for the August 19 attack. Al Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq also claimed they carried out the bombing four days earlier on a website. The government has never reconciled these two versions of events.
The Arab and Iraqi press however, were full of ideas about why Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki chose to confront Syria. What seems most likely is that Maliki wanted to defer blame for the bombings on a believable target, Baathists in Syria. First, the Baath Party and insurgents openly operate in Syria. For example, in 2008 Baath members and insurgent groups held a televised conference in Damascus, and in July 2009, militants held a summit in Syria. That made Damascus an easy target for Maliki. The Prime Minister is also running on law and order again for the 2010 elections, so he needed to blame someone other than himself for the attack. Another possible reason is that Maliki has been upset that the United States has held off and on negotiations with Baathists in Syria. It was reported that Baghdad demanded that Syria deport over 200 Baath members, which would’ve disrupted any deals with Washington as well as gotten rid of some of the most militant opponents of the Iraqi government.
If the Arab League announcement is followed through with, then this whole episode may be wrapping up. Maliki will have achieved his goal of distracting public attention away from his rule and the Iraqi security forces, to Syria and the Baathists. With all the fury and announcements, people will also probably forget that the government came out with two contradictory stories of who was responsible for the August 19 bombings. Maliki will then be able to return to the campaign trail claiming that he stood up for Iraq against the terrorists, even if he probably accused the wrong ones.
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Aswat al-Iraq, “90% of terrorists came to Iraq through Syria – PM,” 8/31/09
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- “Footage of “confessions” by Wednesday bombings’ prime suspect broadcast,” 8/23/09
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- “Wednesday attackers Baathists – BOC,” 8/22/09
Dagher, Sam, “2 Blasts Expose Security Flaws in Heart of Iraq,” New York Times, 8/19/09
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Iraq The Model, “Iraq has satellite imagery of Syria training camps,” 9/7/09
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Lynch, Marc, “The Syrian-Iraqi spat,” Foreign Policy, 9/1/09
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Sands, Phil, “A safe haven in Damascus,” The National, 8/29/09
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