Saturday, December 12, 2009

Is The Security Situation In Iraq Getting Worse?

Every time there is a massive, headline-grabbing bombing in Iraq, it sets off a wave of reports and commentaries in the West about how the security situation in the country is getting worse. The most recent such attack was on December 8, 2009 when four targets in Baghdad were assaulted resulting in 127 deaths and 448 wounded. In August and October there were similar bombings of government ministries and the Baghdad provincial council building. A typical response was by John McCreary of AFCEA Intelligence who wrote on December 8 that, “Day by day, the security situation is deteriorating.  This should surprise no Readers and it will get much worse in the next few months.” Thomas Ricks, author of the books The Fiasco and The Gamble, member of the Center for a New American Century think tank, who runs the Best Defense blog on the Foreign Policy website, is another who has an on-going series of posts called “Iraq, the unraveling” that argues things are going downhill in the country. The problem with these writers is that they appear to be basing their writings purely upon press reports, which focus almost exclusively on violence. As reported before, that gives a distorted picture of the situation. What they lack is any kind of research or background into the larger trend in violence that can put these attacks into context.

First, there is no direct correlation between large bombings and the overall security situation. In June 2009 for example, there were 14 mass casualty bombings that resulted in 174 deaths and 517 wounded. The next month there were 35 such attacks that led to 180 dead and 655 wounded. According to Iraq Body Count however, there were more deaths in June, 488, than July, 395, even though the latter had more bombings.

Comparison Of Bombings and Overall Deaths In Iraq – June vs July 2009

June 2009
Mass Casualty Bombings: 14
Deaths Caused By: 174
Wounded Caused By: 517
Overall Monthly Death Count: 488

July 2009
Mass Casualty Bombings: 35
Death Caused By: 180
Wounded Caused By: 655
Overall Monthly Death Count: 395

Second, even if one were to judge Iraqi security by multiple fatality bombings, they have been declining since their peak in 2006. The Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index tracks such attacks from May 2003 to the present. According to their numbers, there were an average of 5.1 of these bombings a month in 2003, 13.5 in 2004, 29.1 in 2005, before they reached their highest point in 2006 with an average of 50.9. After that there was a steady decline with an average of 38.5 bombings a month in 2007, followed by 21.0 in 2008, and 15.5 this year from January to November 2009.

Average Number of Mass Casualty Bombings 2003-2009
2003: Avg. 5.1
2004: Avg. 13.5
2005: Avg. 29.1
2006: Avg. 50.9
2007: Avg. 38.5
2008: Avg. 21.0
2009: Avg. 15.5

Third, attacks overall are down to their lowest levels since 2004. From January to March 2004 there were around 250-300 security incidents each week. Attacks took off as the sectarian war started with the bombing of the Samarra mosque in February 2006 peaking at 1,800 per week in May 2007. After that point, weekly attacks steadily decreased with a few up-ticks. Since July 2009 they have averaged below 200 per week.

 Some thought that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq’s cities on June 30, 2009 would negatively affect security, but that hasn’t happened either. From mid-February to June 30, 2009 there were an average of 250 security incidents per week. From the withdrawal date to early November 2009 there has been an average of just under 200 attacks per week. The number killed has also seen a very slight decrease from before and after the pullout.

Like bombings, there is also no correlation between overall attacks and casualties in Iraq. As the chart below shows, security incidents reached their highest level at the middle of 2007, yet the number of deaths had been declining since the very end of 2006.


Regarding deaths, 2009 has seen the fewest number since the Iraq war began. From May to December 2003 when the invasion ended and the insurgency was just beginning, there was an average of 578.8 deaths per month according to Iraq Body Count. In comparison, from January to November 2009 there have been an average of 388.7. In fact, August 2009 was the only month this year that casualties reached the 500 mark. Deaths reached their highest levels in late-2006 to early-2007 when over 3,000 were being killed a month. Since then they have seen a steady decline, with November 2009 having the fewest fatalities since 2003.

Iraqi Monthly Deaths 2003 vs 2009

May 545
June 593
July 650
Aug. 790
Sep. 553
Oct. 493
Nov. 478
Dec. 529
Avg. Monthly Deaths: 578.8

Jan. 276
Feb. 343
March 416
Apr. 484
May 332
June 488
July 395
Aug. 593
Sep. 299
Oct. 438
Nov. 212
Avg. Monthly Deaths: 388.7


Overall, there is nothing to support the thesis that the security situation is worsening in Iraq. Mass casualty bombings, security incidents, and deaths have all gone down since the sectarian war of 2006-2007. The situation has not gotten worse since the U.S. pulled out of Iraq’s urban areas either at the end of June 2009. The major reason for this change is the fact that the majority of the Sunni insurgency gave up and switched sides to join the Anbar Awakening and Sons of Iraq program from 2005-2007. More recently, many Sunnis have decided to join the political process after they boycotted the first election in 2005. There are still militants in Iraq who carry out attacks every day, but their numbers and areas of operation are severely limited. Their violence will likely continue for the foreseeable future however as Iraqi politics are still divided, and some religious zealots still feel that Iraq is their cause. It should also be stressed that despite the drop in deaths and attacks, and the weakening of the insurgency, Iraq remains one of the most violent countries in the world. These incidents need to be put into a larger political context however, instead of the knee-jerk commentary that is currently prevalent.


Cordesman, Anthony, “Iraq: Security Trends,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 11/19/09

McCreary, John, “Night Watch For the Night of 8 December 2009,” AFCEA Intelligence, 12/8/09

O’Hanlon, Michael Livingston, Ian, “Iraq Index,” Brookings Institution, 12/11/09

RTT News, “Chief Of Iraqi Security Forces In Baghdad Replaced After Deadly Bomb Attacks,” 12/9/09


Joel Wing said...

I accidentally deleted your post! Hit the wrong button. Could you please re-post it? Sorry

Joel Wing said...

This comment was originally made by Gregg Carlstrom that I accidentally deleted:

Great analysis.

The big intangible question, though - and this is probably impossible to answer - is how Iraqis perceive their security. It's true, as you write, that overall security is not getting worse. But there's some anecdotal evidence to suggest, despite that trend, that Iraqis are losing confidence in the security forces.

Perceptions of (in)security ultimately has a big influence on politics, stability, and, indeed, on security itself.

Joel Wing said...


Great question. My feeling is that the recent Baghdad bombings have lessened the public's support for the government, especially Maliki, probably less for the actual security forces. After each bombing the government goes through the same routine: Blames Baathists and Syria, says it made arrests, etc. No one goes on trial however. All the political parties and politicians then begin attacking and blaming each other.

The last Iraqi public opinion poll on security was in April 09. See:

Iraqis were very secure in their own neighborhoods, 76%, but very apprehensive about the rest of the country, 31%. I would suspect that those trends would be re-enforced by the recent bombings as well.

Anonymous said...


Great entry -- actually, great article, as yours always are. Thanks.

Ricks is an odd one. Inside him there's a constant battle between his ideological and reportorial selves. In "The Gamble," to his credit, he does acknowledge Bush's courage in deciding on the surge course of action, even when everyone else thought it was best to just get out. That's buried in the middle of the book, however.


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