Tag Archives: Iraq

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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The New War in Iraq

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For a more recent update on the situation in Iraq and additional information on ISIL check out this post.

Even before the last US troops left in December 2011, American interest in Iraq was fading sharply. The political turmoil in Egypt, the Syrian Civil War and the wider Arab Spring events have all overshadowed a growing terrorist insurgency within Iraq. It is all too common to see 30 people killed a day by car bombs and targeted shootings, and with a death toll of over 1,000 July 2013 was the deadliest since the tail end of the 2006-2008 civil war according to the UN. The recent surge of violence and the increasingly coordinated nature of such attacks has prompted the Iraqi Interior Ministry to declare the country has entered into an “open war“. Even Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has acknowledged the severity of the situation and he has recently called for security assistance in response to the growing sectarian crisis. Security forces are unable to effectively curb the increasing threat from extremists and recent events have further deepened the conflict.

The siege that freed hundreds of prisoners on July 22nd, including al-Qaida senior leaders, from the infamous Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons has further highlighted the fact that the perpetrators, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has consolidated and redoubled their efforts against the Iraqi State. ISIL is an al-Qaida affiliate which has claimed the lion’s share of responsibility for the coordinated bombings and killings that frequently target security forces and Iraqi Shi’a across the country. ISIL is also active in Syria and together with al-Nusra, another al-Qaida linked Islamist militant group, they have been growing in their fight against Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, they have been cited as more effective in fighting the army in comparison to more moderate groups of the Free Syrian Army due to their more extensive past military experience in the region.

The effects of the Syrian War coupled with the instability in Iraq have not often been analyzed as a singular problem, but perhaps that perspective should be more seriously considered as such. The Syrian Civil War surpassed the scope of the Libyan Civil War in number of people killed months ago but Iraq is an even larger and arguably more divisive state than even Syria. Additionally, the unique situation in Syria has attracted more international jihadists and militants than perhaps any conflict before, from Iran and Hezbollah to North Africa and the Caucasus.

If the extremists were to be shut out of a future political stake in Syria, then what is to stop them from either carrying out a similar insurgency in Syria or intensifying their campaign against the Shi’a-led government state in Iraq? How many more attacks can the mainstream Iraqi Shi’a community withstand before more militants rise up to take action into their own hands?

At this rate, Iraq is slowly approaching another sectarian war that could be bloodier, more devastating to the region and much more difficult to end than the last.

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