Alarming Warning Signs in Iraq

Two recent developments in Iraq have further underscored the severity of the security situation that is spiraling out of control: a surprising attack in the previously untouched heart of Kurdistan and a wave of coordinated revenge bombings against Sunnis carried out by Shi’a militants.

Attack in Erbil

While not the site of the attack, the historic city center of Erbil is literally walled off, and the city is widely considered one of Iraq's safest.

While not the site of the attack, the historic center of Erbil is literally walled off, and the city is widely considered one of Iraq’s safest.

Erbil is fourth largest city in Iraq and the most populated city in the Kurdish Autonomous region. It is the capital of Erbil Province in northeastern Iraq, and hasn’t been the site of a major violent incident since 2007. Throughout the entire Iraq War, the US did not lose a single soldier in the Kurdish region.

The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group from Arabs with their own language, customs and culture. Kurds may be either Sunni or Shi’a, but are more likely to self-identify with their region or ethnicity before religious sect.

On September 29th, five coordinated bombs targeting the Kurdish security services killed six members of the Kurdish security forces. One of the bombs was hidden in an ambulance that exploded when responding to the scene. Dozens more were wounded, and six attackers were killed in response. Baghdad has an agreement with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) so it may police its own region, and they have done a very solid job up until this incident.

Side note: KRG President Massoud Barzani previously remarked that he was committed to defending Kurds in the northern areas of Syria with the Kurdish Peshmerga military forces, which has interestingly been encouraged by Assad.

The significance of the attack is that the likely perpetrators, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are bold enough and organized enough to get through to one of the most highly defended areas of the country.  ISIL has been trying to incite groups into fighting in order to destabilize the state to their own benefit. If ISIL has the strength and ability to strike Kurdish forces persistently, it could open up another front in the nascent war.

Sectarian Funeral Bombings

Moqtada al-Sadr rally in Sadr City in 2008

Moqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi milita, rally in Sadr City in 2008

For four consecutive days deadly funeral bombings struck Iraq, killing over 100 people, many of whom were already mourning those lost in recent violence. What is critical of these attacks is that they reflect the increasingly sectarian nature of the violence that is reaching new levels.

Two bombing attacks in Baghdad and one near Samarra targeting Sunni funerals on September 20th, 21st and 23rd killed dozens. Previously it was relatively unheard of to hear of several consecutive attacks targeting Sunnis, but violence on both groups has increased. Sadr City, a heavily Shi’a district within Baghdad and one-time stronghold of the insurgent Mahdi Army active in the 2006-2007 civil war, was rocked by the largest funeral bombing attack that killed at least 73 on September 22nd. Further attacks since the funeral bombing wave in Shi’a neighborhoods have further underlined this growing division.

The implication of this recent series of attacks is that now it suggests revenge attacks are already are able to be executed in a devastating manner on short notice. The UN condemned the string of bombings, expressing heightened concern and urging against retribution attacks. If the Shi’a have already started responding to Sunni extremism that hasn’t been contained by the government security forces, there may be little UN rhetoric left that could dissuade them from fighting back.

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3 Responses to Alarming Warning Signs in Iraq

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