Political tensions continued to escalate with the killing in Baghdad of Hamza al-Shimmari, a Shia politician running for parliament in the April elections and allied with the Sadrist bloc. On 10 February, Parliament Speaker and probable Presidential candidate Osama al-Nujaifi escaped an assassination attempt after his convoy was hit by a roadside bomb in Mosul. As the sectarian divide widens in the face of a deteriorating security environment and growing dissatisfaction with current elites, high-profile attacks against local politicians are likely to occur in the lead-up to the votes.
These tensions continued to be reflected in levels of violence in central and northern governorates, with the highest number of car bombs recorded in months. Despite indications that militants would focus on southern provinces following VBIED incidents reported last week, attacks remained concentrated in Baghdad, Nineveh and Salahuddin. Although an assault on Fallujah was said to be imminent to dislodge militant cells from Anbar, the operation was abandoned and airstrikes ultimately preferred to contain the crisis. With a fragile support base ahead of competitive elections, the political cost associated with a ground assault in Fallujah would certainly be too high for the ruling coalition, which has repeatedly framed the unrest as a security matter.
As such, a failure to retake Fallujah would most probably ruin Maliki’s chances to win a third term, and the situation is therefore expected to remain unchanged until the elections. As the government continues to maintain important security precautions in the south in a bid to consolidate Shia support, opportunities to attack ISF elements will remain located in northern and central governorates. The following weeks are therefore expected to witness similar levels of violence.
Complex attacks returned to northern governorates following the disruption of this pattern last week. Nineveh attracted most of the violence, with series of car bombs causing multiple fatalities among civilians and ISF elements in Mosul. On 05 February, militants attempted to free prisoners held in the Badush prison, resulting in three civilians killed and scores injured. Whilst no one escaped, this attack is nonetheless indicative of the growing security vacuum in the region, with many areas outside government control. On the same day, a sophisticated operation involving a VBIED and two suicide bombers hit an ISF checkpoint, killing a soldier and injuring five others. Between 07 and 08 February, three car bombs detonated in Salahuddin, causing at least 32 casualties. On 06 February, a VBIED hit a district in Diyala and injured two civilians. Amid continued stagnation in Anbar and given the unchanged appetite to strike government targets in Sunni-dominated provinces, northern governorates are expected to continue witnessing high levels of militant activity over the next weeks. Meanwhile, Kurdish provinces remained free from violence.
As the army remained focused on Anbar to contain the insurgency, invigorated ISIL militants launched a wave of assaults across several neighbourhoods of the capital. Baghdad witnessed its highest number of VBIED incidents in months as dozens of car bombs detonated in sequence against civilian gatherings and ISF elements. On 04 February, three VBIEDs hit streets busy with civilians, killing scores of civilians. On 05 February, two car bombs exploded simultaneously and injured 18. On 06 February, ten VBIEDs detonated in sequence, killing and wounding dozens. Additional VBIEDs struck districts of the capital between 08 and 10 February. Other militant operations included coordinated attacks carried out by suicide bombers, reinforcing the perception that the ISF lacks the capabilities to curb violence levels.
Whilst the situation in Anbar remained stagnant, both the government and ISIL militants appear to have an interest in maintaining the status quo in the restive province. An assault on urban areas would have little chance of success and would likely impact negatively on the government ahead of the April elections. At the same time, the focus of government resources on Anbar has allowed militants to strike neighbouring provinces with more decisive actions, posing a greater threat to central authorities. Levels of violence should therefore remain unchanged.
Levels of violence across southern governorates remained in line with weekly averages, despite concerns that VBIEDs would return after the detonation of a car bomb in Wasit. Whilst these incidents are typically followed by series of complex attacks in the south, this pattern has been disrupted in the aftermath of the Anbar crisis, seemingly prompting a tactical shift to focus more heavily on northern regions. Tribal disputes continued to account for most of the violence witnessed in Babil and Basra, causing some casualties amongst rival factions. In the lead-up to elections which are likely to oppose a substantial number of Shia parties, tribal violence is expected to be sustained. Whilst militant penetration cannot be ruled out, increased military presence should ensure that southern provinces remain relatively calm.