As 2013 came to a close, months of sustained violence and devastating atrocities in Iraq saw a civilian death toll on a par with those recorded in 2008 and more than double the figure for 2012. The deepening of the fault lines splitting the country, the intensifying of the Sunni / Shia violence and the increasing influence of Al-Qaida as it moves back and forth across Syria’s porous border culminated at the end of the year with the re-emergence of Al—Anbar province as the heart of the Sunni resistance. The news over the last reporting period has been dominated by the continued fighting between members of the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in the province. Tensions have run high since December 28, when ISF arrested a prominent Sunni figure accused and sought by authorities in connection with alleged terrorism charges. The catalyst for the already angered fighters then came on December 30 when Al-Maliki ordered the ISF to dismantle the sprawling Sunni protest camp near Ramadi. The camp had been the headquarters of a year-long sit-in by Sunnis protesting at their alleged exclusion from the political process, however the Government of Iraq (GoI) claimed the protest camp had become a place of refuge for Al-Qaeda Militants.
The camp was successfully shut down, however the violent response from a combined force of Sunni militants and armed men from the major anti-government Sunni tribes led to Al-Maliki’s withdrawal of the army from urban areas and the eventual overrunning of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi by ISIL and a loss of control by the Government. Al-Maliki has urged Fallujah residents to expel ISIL militants to avoid an all-out battle in the besieged city as the GoI prepares for a coordinated military operation to oust the insurgency and movement controls and curfews have been put in place. The loss of control of these major cities in Anbar, Iraq’s largest province is undoubtedly a blow to the GoI. The Shi’ite led administration has been struggling to contain discontent amongst its Sunni minority with regards to what they perceive as Shia political domination. The ISIL’s seizure of Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi and the re-emergence of Anbar as the heart of the resistance is the greatest and most serious direct challenge to Maliki’s government to date post the end of the SOFA agreement and the subsequent withdrawal of American forces in 2011.
The US and neighboring Iran will be viewing the escalating conflict and subsequent fall out in Iraq with alarm. Neither country want to see Al-Qaida or affiliated factions take firmer root inside Iraq and both have offered support; the US by accelerating its deliveries of military equipment to Iraq to further facilitate the current siege and impending offensive. Tehran has signaled it is willing to send military equipment and advisers should Baghdad ask for it, however it is extremely doubtful that Baghdad would take up such an offer; any direct Iranian help would only exacerbate sectarian tensions that have led up to and allowed the current situation to unfurl with impunity.
The relative calm seen in the Northern provinces of Iraq have been disturbed this reporting period with a high profile VBIED attack in the Kirkuk’s central Al-Quriya police station. Reports indicate that at around midday a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with explosives into the entrance of the police station. This resulted in the deaths of 3 Iraqi police and sources now indicate that at least 65 civilians were injured as a result of the attack. The explosion destroyed parts of the police station, surrounding buildings and vehicles were also badly damaged. Kirkuk Deputy Police Chief Turhan Abdel-Rahman was quoted as saying “the attack bore the fingerprints of the Al-Qaeda affiliated ISIL, however this is as yet unfounded. To date no group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Open source reporting by the U.N. refugee agency reports more than 2,500 Syrians fled by barge into Iraq’s Kurdistan region on Sunday. According to UNHCR, this is the first large scale crossing of refugees since Iraq closed its border with Syria in mid-September. Border crossings between Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria closed more than three months ago following an exodus of some 60,000 Syrian refugees and a pontoon bridge, which had been the main mode of escape, is not now in use. The agency says each barge carried between 10 and 30 people and that the journey from Simelka, on the Syrian side of the river, took about 20 minutes. UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said the Syrians were allowed to cross into Kurdistan due to a new, more flexible approach adopted by the Iraqi authorities. In addition to the Syrian refugee crisis, the UNHRC is also increasingly concerned about the growing number of people fleeing the violence in Fallujah and Ramadi.
The evening of the 4th January saw the Iraqi Border Police in the northern province of Ninewa, confront armed groups and smugglers from Syria attempting to breach the border. Since Iraq closed its borders with Syria in September, it can be assumed that the lucrative cross border smuggling operations have been seriously damaged. However, recent events in Iraq and Syria coupled with the mass exodus of civilian population across the weakly secured border regions would explain why the smugglers have tried to exploit the fragile security opportunity
Baghdad residents endured yet another traumatic wave of bombings on Sunday 5th Jan 2014 which has reportedly killed 20 and injured at least 45 others. The most devastating of the multiple attacks occurred in the Northern Shi’ite occupied district of Shaab when two VBIEDs exploded simultaneously near a popular restaurant and café. Officials stated that those blasts killed 10 and wounded 26.
Additionally a further two VBIEDs ripped through the capital; the first located in the Shiite occupied eastern district of Sadr City, killing 5 and wounding 10. The second detonated killing 3 and wounding 6 in a commercial area in the vicinity of the central Bab al-Muadham neighbourhood. The figures have not been officially validated.
In line with the challenges faced by the south and in particular Basra in the last few months, the southern regions have not gone unaffected this reporting period with three significant incidents occurring in quick succession in the last 24 hours. In the early evening of the 6 Jan 14 an IDF attack was mounted against a local IP station IVO Jurf al-Sakhr, unfortunately the rounds (7 in total) all fell short inflicting 9 casualties from the local residential area. On the morning of the 7 Jan 14 in central Basra a concussion grenade detonated at the residence of Iraqi’s Ambassador to Malaysia; no casualties were reported and it is widely thought that the attack was politically motivated with the intention of intimidating the Ambassador. Mid-morning, a suicide bomber who approached an IP checkpoint near Musayyib was safely neutralized. The vest was later detonated under control by the Iraqi EOD.
Although events and incidents in the southern regions are less frequent than the established flash points across Iraq, these ongoing attacks show that various groups operating in the region have the capability, intent and resources to mount continued attacks in their effort to further destabilise a fragile administration. Iraqi security forces in Basra are quick to contain incidents however their response can often appear heavy handed and in an attempt to provide more nuanced solutions, Basra’s governor has announced the hiring of a British private military company. The company will provide strategic assistance in designing and implementing an intelligent security system which will be put in place across the city.