Amid reports that the Iraqi army is preparing an imminent assault on Fallujah, under control of ISIL militants for over a month, heavy shelling continued to strike key locations in restive Anbar governorate. Whilst the unrest absorbs government resources, political divisions have been increasingly apparent and the authority of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki openly challenged by prominent figures of the opposition.
In a recent visit to Washington, Parliament Speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi criticised Maliki’s position on the Anbar crisis, who refuses to address the grievances voiced by moderate Sunnis and rather focuses on the security dimension of the insurgency. On 04 February, members of Nujaifi’s Sunni coalition announced that they would only return to parliament if an emergency session is held on Anbar.
Political tensions continued to be reflected in high levels of violence across the country, with central and northern regions attracting most incidents. While sequences of VBIEDs returned to Baghdad, patterns observed over the past month have been disrupted this week, with levels of violence across northern provinces consistent with data recorded in November 2013. Indeed, while the concentration of ISF efforts in Anbar had previously prompted ISIL militants to capitalise on the unrest and strike northern Sunni-dominated governorates with mass-casualty attacks, these tactics were largely avoided over the reporting period.
As the ruling coalition seeks to consolidate Shia votes ahead of elections in April, militants could be saving their resources to launch complex assaults in southern governorates, in a bid to undermine Maliki’s electoral strategy and relieve pressure in Anbar. Continued stagnation in the political sphere will continue to impact on levels of violence, whilst increased militant activity could also be recorded across southern governorates in the next days.
Although the situation in Anbar remained stagnant, with a decisive victory of ISF forces over ISIL insurgents implanted in the main cities increasingly unlikely, incidents in northern provinces returned to levels seen prior to the outbreak of the crisis. VBIEDs were only recorded in Salahuddin province, with two car bombs detonating on 29 January and resulting in scores of casualties. On 02 February, another VBIED targeted a police checkpoint, killing eight civilians and injuring dozens.
Elsewhere in northern governorates, IEDs and small arms attacks continued to hit ISF forces, with Nineveh witnessing most of the violence. The decrease in militant activity across northern governorates could signal a tactical shift decided by ISIL, and prompted as much by ISF operations launched in response to increased levels of violence in the north, as by the strategic opportunity to hit southern provinces. Whilst violence will undoubtedly continue to plague northern provinces, the near-absence of complex assaults could therefore be balanced with expeditionary mass-casualty attacks in the south. Meanwhile, Kurdish provinces remained free from violence.
Following a trend which has been consistently sustained over the past weeks, Baghdad continued to attract most of the violence, with series of complex attacks and VBIEDs witnessed in several districts of the capital. Car bombs detonated in sequence in northern, southern and eastern neighbourhoods. On 29 January, a VBIED killed six civilians and injured 26 others. On 30 January, another device detonated in the Shaab area, killing one civilian and injuring 18. On 03 February, a series of car bombs caused dozens of fatalities.
Meanwhile, the continued unrest in Anbar prompted government forces to prepare an assault on the city of Fallujah, which has been at the hands of militants since December 2013. Whilst under-reported clashes continued to occur in the outskirts of urban areas, intensified shelling killed an undisclosed number of civilians, accelerating the humanitarian crisis in Anbar and further weakening the legitimacy of ruling elites. Due to a lack of internal support from Sunni tribes, an assault on Fallujah will do little to break the stalemate, and is only likely to fuel violence and invigorate militant cells present in surrounding provinces.
Whilst southern governorates remained largely insulated from militant operations, the relative absence of mass-casualty attacks in northern regions and the continuing unrest in Anbar could signal the imminence of sophisticated assaults in the south. Southern governorates represent the core of Maliki’s support base and its security is therefore essential in the lead-up to competitive elections scheduled in April. Furthermore, the concentration of ISF forces in Anbar and northern regions has created an opportunity which militants could seize and translate into attacks against civilian gatherings.
This trend was highlighted by incidents reported this week, with two VBIEDs dismantled in Basra on 02 February. On 03 February, three civilians were wounded when a car bomb detonated near Kut, in Wasit province. Whilst security measures will probably be reinforced following these incidents, levels of violence are expected to increase over the next reporting period.