How Iraq Turned into the World’s Car Bomb Capital

As Iraqis went to the polls Wednesday for the first parliamentary election since the U.S. military withdrew from the country in 2011, something was missing from the streets of Baghdad -- cars. In a sign of Iraq's struggles to tackle rising violence and terrorist attacks, authorities banned all private vehicles from the streets of the capital and other Iraqi cities in an effort to prevent the type of catastrophic car bombings that have killed tens of thousands of Iraqis in recent years.

Though that ban appears to have been successful in preventing car bombs, the elections were still marred by violence. As the polls closed, Agence France-Press (AFP) had recorded at least 53 attacks throughout the country -- including mortar attacks, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers -- leaving at least 14 people dead and 36 wounded. It was just the latest sign of how violence is surging to levels not seen since the height of the country's civil war.

The statistics show just how precipitously violence has risen in the years following the American withdrawal. During this year alone, AFP's Baghdad bureau has recorded more than 3,000 violent deaths, putting the country on pace for more than 12,000 casualties by the end of 2014. By comparison, AFP recorded less than 7,000 violent deaths in all of 2013. In 2012, the Brookings Institute tallied roughly 5,200 casualties among civilians and security forces, and 4,800 such casualties in 2011.   

While some of this year's deaths among civilians and security force personnel have come in clashes with armed militants in areas like Anbar province, where the government has lost partial control to tribal groups and al Qaeda affiliated militias, the insurgents' preferred weapon in areas they can't hold is the car bomb. And it's not hard to see why: They have been called "the poor man's air force" -- cheap to manufacture, extremely mobile, easily concealed, and capable of wreaking extraordinary devastation without requiring militants to lose their own lives in suicide bombings. And they have been used to devastating effect in the run-up to the Iraqi election, as insurgents launched at least five such attacks in the past week alone -- primarily targeting Shiite neighborhoods and political rallies -- leaving at least 69 people dead and many more wounded.

"You don't need to be a rocket scientist [to manufacture a car bomb] -- a junior high school graduate can probably do it," said Richard Higgins, a former project manager at the Irregular Warfare Support program within the Department of Defense, where he worked with the Special Operations community to mitigate the threat of improvised explosive devices during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. "And you see [al Qaeda] putting out websites that describes this stuff -- you see them imparting this knowledge to recruits as a means to attract people, because it is so empowering. ‘I'm an engineer, I'm a bombmaker' - that's terrorist credibility."

The Iraqi government is not alone in struggling to contain this threat. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) -- a category of weapon that includes both roadside bombs and car bombs -- were the number one killer of American troops in Iraq, causing nearly two-thirds of U.S. combat deaths through the height of the war. And while Higgins said that the U.S. military developed tactics to go after the networks responsible for manufacturing these weapons, it found itself largely helpless to detect car bombs once a vehicle was actually roaming the streets.

"In terms of a means to stop it...despite an investment of tens of billions of dollars into the IED problem, we haven't really dealt with it," he said.

The Iraqi government has not fared any better. In fact, as of a few months ago Iraqi security forces were still using fake bomb detectors sold to the government by a con man recently sentenced to 10 years in prison by a British court for his role in the fraud. The design for these detectors was based on a novelty golf ball finder, and have precisely no ability to detect explosives.

One might think that such grievous security failures would harm Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in today's election, but it's not clear that's the case. The rising tide of violence has allowed the premier to position himself as a defender of order and the rule of law: In January, when Iraqi forces lost control of much of Anbar province, pollsters for candidates hostile to Maliki actually recorded a spike in the prime minister's approval rating.

That's led Maliki, a savvy politician, to make the country's rising violence into a central part of his campaign pitch. "Voters have no excuse before God and history if they do not make the right choice," he said recently. "Iraqis know who is supporting the rebuilding of the country and democracy, and who is supporting terrorism and seeking to destroy the country."

If polls are to be believed, the man who has run Iraq during the bloodiest period in its history is likely to once again win more seats in parliament than any of his rivals.



Meet the Four Americans Who Defected to North Korea in the 1960s

Earlier this month, a 24-year-old American named Matthew Todd Miller tore up his tourist visa while attempting to enter North Korea and shouted that that he had gone to the country "after choosing it as a shelter" and "would seek asylum," according to the country's state-run news agency, KCNA. He was subsequently arrested by a "relevant organ" of the country's security services, which KCNA reports is investigating the case.

For now, very little is known about the man. According to the New York Times, Miller traveled to North Korea alone and, so far, no family members have contacted the travel agency that handled his trip. But if it turns out that he is a defector, he'll join a colorful cast of expatriate Americans who have sought Pyongyang's cold embrace.

Between 1962 and 1965, four American soldiers defected to North Korea in an attempt to escape their military responsibilities. James Dresnok, 21, Charles Jenkins, 24, Larry Abshier, 19, and Jerry Wayne Parrish, 19, did not know one another before they fled north, but once they arrived in the country, the authorities brought them together, forcing them to live in a house where they were under constant surveillance and subjected to "re-education," which involved memorizing the political philosophy and writings of Kim Il-sung, then the country's paramount leader, as well as studying the Korean language.

Eventually, they were forced to play Western villains in North Korean propaganda films -- notably the late 1970s picture Unsung Heroes, which is about a North Korean spy working in Seoul during the Korean War. At various points, North Korea assigned the men wives, many of whom turned out to be foreigners kidnapped as part of a DPRK intelligence campaign to recruit spies.

A 2006 documentary, Crossing the Line, revealed the stark reality of the men's lives under North Korean rule. Produced with the permission of the state, the film largely profiles Dresnok, who still lives in Pyongang with his family -- and seems to enjoy it. "I don't have any intentions of leaving," Dresnok tells the filmmakers, "I don't give a shit if you put a billion damn dollars of gold on the table."

Dresnok has two sons from his late wife, a Romanian woman believed to have been kidnapped by DPRK agents, and one child from his second wife, who is reportedly the daughter of a North Korean woman and a Togolese diplomat. Dresnok paints a complicated but sentimental picture of contemporary North Korea. Here's a preview from the documentary:

But Jenkins conjures a harsher version of life in North Korea -- and a crueler portrait of Dresnok. Jenkins managed to leave North Korea in 2003 thanks to his wife, a Japanese abductee named Hitomi Soga who was curiously repatriated to Japan in 2002. Jenkins and their two daughters were allowed to follow her out of the country  18 months later. The couple's story is laid out in Jenkins's 2008 memoir, The Reluctant Communist. (Foreign Policy reviewed an earlier, Korean-language version of the book in 2006). In it, he writes of his defection: "I did not understand that the country I was seeking temporary refuge in was literally a giant, demented prison; once someone goes there, they almost never get out."

Jenkins later appeared on CBS's 60 Minutes and challenged Dresnok's cheery representation of North Korea. He said that when his North Korean minder wanted to punish him, he tied Jenkins' hands behind his back and let Dresnok beat him, turning one American against another. "Dresnok is a man who likes to hurt someone," he said on television. "He feels good after he does it."

Here's the segment:


Today, little is known about Abshier and Parrish, who both dies from health complications years ago, and never had the chance to tell their own stories.

Whether Miller has in fact joined the ranks of American defectors remains unknown, but he is not the sole American detained in North Korea. Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American tour operator, is currently in North Korean custody after being arrested in November 2012 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. In March, North Korea freed an Australian missionary it had detained for allegedly trying to spread Christianity in the isolated nation.

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