By Tom Walker, Director, Assaye Risk
Heightened levels of violence and increased sectarian tensions dominated reporting in Iraq this week. The relative uneasy calm of last week was shattered by an increase in bombings, IDF attacks and assassinations across the country, with the majority of the violence predominantly in the North and Centre of Iraq. In line with this higher tempo of attacks the number of country wide fatalities rose proportionally to a 2013 high of approx. 170 killed during the week (the majority by IED actions), further bringing the yearly total up to appox. 483. The increased operational tempo of the ISF has continued through the week, however in contrast to previous weeks the hard stance and dampening affect seen last week appears to have had little effect on insurgent operations in key areas such as Mosul and Diyala.
Interwoven themes – The Iraqi budget, the demonstration movement and mounting sectarian tensions – dominated the national media this week. Friday prayers on 01 Mar once again saw a mass mobilisation of the Sunni community across the country in protest against GoI. Despite the peaceful nature of the movement the fact that Sunnis are now mobilising in such large numbers has alarmed Western diplomats, who fear the demonstrations could re-spark the sectarian conflict that plagued the country between 2005 and 2008. This increase in activity by the Sunni community has led to a classic counter reaction from Shia insurgents groups, taking the form of heavy posturing, widespread intimidation and assasinations, most notably by a new group called the Mukthar Army, an Iranian backed militia, who rose to prominence earlier this year. Furthermore, much is being reported of the accusations, made by Sunni politicians, that the authorities are seeking to escalate sectarian tensions through similar means in order to provoke a strong sectarian backlash that provides the pretext to forcefully break up the protest movement.
At the international level the conflict from Syria spilled across into Iraqi territory this week with sharp consequences. The early part of the week saw increased activity by rebel groups inside Syria targeting government positions in close proximity to the Iraqi border. Incursions, strafing and rocketing were reported along the length of the Iraqi / Syrian frontier with Rabee’a border crossing point coming under direct contact from fighting inside Syria. Syrian warplanes repeatedly violated Iraqi airspace apparently bombing and strafing the Yaarabiya border crossing point in Nineveh province from Iraqi airspace. Reports also suggested that the Iraqi Army had fired upon Syrian rebels. Of particular note was the ambushing in western Iraq of a convoy repatriating Syrian soldiers who had fled intense fighting on the border, which resulted in the deaths of approx. 62, including 9 members of the ISF.