Weekly Security Update for 16th February 2011

Overview

Levels of violence have been rising in Iraq over the past four weeks. The increase has been gradual, but consistent and last week saw more than 40 attacks reported countrywide for the first time since mid-December. Recent days have seen a particularly concerning rise in militant activity and social tensions in the northern city of Kirkuk. There have also been a number of attacks on Shi’ah worshippers in Salah ad-Din province. Demonstrations calling for an improvement in public services are also ongoing in many urban areas of the country, with violence reported today at a protest in Wassit province.

Weekly Violence in Iraq

North

While Mosul has suffered the majority of northern violence over recent months, the past few days have seen a worrying rise in the number of attacks taking place in Kirkuk. On 15 February three Turkish nationals were abducted in the city by unknown gunmen. These are the first foreign nationals to have been abducted in the country since a US national of Iraqi origin was snatched by Asa’ib Ahl ul-Haq in Baghdad in January 2010. Further analysis on the latest kidnap trends in Iraq can be found here. A further three Iraqi nationals were abducted in Kirkuk over the past week. One of them, a Christian, is still being held, while of the other two, one was found dead and the other alive but injured. The ethnically mixed and contested oil-rich city has been a smouldering crisis waiting to happen for years. Conditions have been quieter than normal over the past few months, but inter-communal animosity between the city’s Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen residents lingers on. 2011 may see a deterioration in community relations and a subsequent rise in violence, while concerns have been raised over a possible security gap once the US military withdraws on 31 December.

Centre

Last week saw a number of attacks on Shi’ah worshippers in the province of Salah ad-Din, including in the holy city of Samarra. A bomb blast against the revered Askari mosque in the city in 2006 helped catalyse a major escalation in sectarian violence in the country and it is likely that the Sunni terrorists responsible for the latest attacks are intent on emulating a similar worsening in conditions. In Diyala province the police have recovered a large number of bodies in recent days. They are believed to belong to the victims of radical Islamist violence which was rife in the province prior to 2008. Organisations such as al-Qaeda in Iraq have been significantly weakened since then, although such groups still have a presence in the region. Members and sympathisers continue to be arrested in police operations in Baghdad, Ba’qubah and other cities in the centre of the country. Meanwhile, demonstrations inspired by events elsewhere in the Middle East are also taking place in Iraq. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain however, the Iraqi protesters are demanding an improvement in employment conditions and the supply of public services (particularly electricity). The authorities have heightened their security measures around urban areas in Anbar province in anticipation of possible protest violence but the majority of events have so far passed peacefully. The main exception to this so far has been an incident in Wassit province. Here protestors stormed the provincial government headquarters in Kut, setting fire to buildings. Private security guards are reported to have responded by opening fire on the crowd, killing at least one person. Further analysis on the latest unrest in Iraq can be found here.

South

The south has also seen its share of demonstrations over the past week, with residents of cities including Basrah, Nassiriyah and Samawah turning out to demand improvements in employment rates, electricity supplies and water services. The majority of these gatherings have remained peaceful but they should be avoided nonetheless as they could turn violent at short notice. Note that an explosive device was defused west of Basrah city on 7 February. On 13 February a bomb on the main road between Zubayr and the border crossing at Safwan also killed one person and injured two. The police are conducting an investigation but it is being speculated that the victims may have been militants who accidentally detonated the device when trying to lay it. On 10 February in Dhi-Qar province four rockets landed on Imam Ali airbase near the southern city of Nassiriyah. No casualties were reported but personnel staying on fortified facilities in the south of the country should review their safety measures nonetheless. Rockets and mortars pose the greatest risk to facilities which might otherwise be deemed well protected and ‘secure’. There are no grounds for complacency in Iraq and personnel staying at such facilities are advised to familiarise themselves with their emergency procedures. Know where your nearest shelters and medical kits are and be prepared to take cover at very short notice.

John Drake is a senior risk consultant with AKE Group, a British private security firm working in Iraq from before 2003. Further details on the company can be found here.

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