A series of night time raids starting late on Sunday killed at least 27 police officers in the Anbar town of Hadithah. The police continue to suffer regular attacks but this latest incident appears particularly brutal. In the month of February official sources report that at least 39 policemen were killed at the hands of militants but this latest attack has left two thirds of that number killed in the space of just a few hours.
The assailants are reported to have been wearing official army uniforms while open sources also reported that they were driving vehicles with Ministry of the Interior markings. If accurate this could indicate a number of things but it does not necessarily denote any official involvement in the killings.
Iraqi security force uniforms have been widely available in parts of the country for years. While the government has previously tried to restrict the private sale of uniforms it is nonetheless still possible for militant groups to obtain them on the black market. Vehicle registrations can also be fabricated, particularly in isolated areas where there are fewer checkpoint searches and the necessary administrative resources to verify vehicles on the road.
Militants in the past have also stolen uniforms and vehicles from the authorities so as to create disguises for attacks. During the height of the insurgency ambulances were even hijacked on occasion so that militants could smuggle in large amounts of explosives to conduct attacks in crowded city centre areas, often in the aftermath of an initial smaller attack where police and paramedics had gathered. Killing such specialised professionals had a devastating impact on the response capabilities of the Iraqi authorities.
By attacking the police the militants will lower morale amongst the force and convince others not to join the profession. The fewer police officers there are, the easier it is for terrorists to operate. This has made it a regular target of groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq for years.
Whoever is behind the late night killings, the incident will likely stoke further frustration amongst the Sunni community that they are not being suitably protected by the government. At a time when members of the Sahwah organisation still face employment uncertainty there is evidently a need for greater imposition of state security in many parts of the country. Many civilians in the most seriously affected areas are only going to question the ability of the authorities in light of the latest incident. There may now be low level protests in majority Sunni towns in response to a perceived lack of protection in the area.
Anbar province has seen an average of 4-5 attacks per week so far this year, making it one of the more hazardous parts of the country. However, incidents have been concentrated mainly in the towns of Fallujah, Karma and Ramadi in the east of the province. Hadithah and more sparsely populated west of the province have been much quieter, although with old smuggling routes, terrorist sympathisers and a lack of police resources there are evidently still threat groups operating in the region.
In general, levels of violence crept up in Iraq towards the end of February, although in total it was a relatively quiet month. The authorities reported a total of 151 fatalities, including 91 civilians, 39 policemen and 21 soldiers. Terrorist attacks are likely to persist in March despite an expected heightening of security measures ahead of the Arab League summit. With media attention on the country ahead of the high profile event it would be a good opportunity for terrorists to engage in violence so as to discredit the Iraqi authorities and raise the profile for their various political demands.
John Drake is a senior risk consultant with AKE, a British risk mitigation company working in Iraq since 2003. If you are travelling to Iraq to cover the Arab League summit you can access AKE’s travel risk intelligence website Global Intake here. You can also obtain a free trial of AKE’s Iraq intelligence reports here.