Amid sustained levels of violence, this week was dominated by Muqtada al-Sadr’s withdrawal from politics. The announcement, made on 15 February, comes only two months before parliamentary elections for which Sadr was considered a serious candidate for the office of Prime Minister. While reasons behind his decision remain speculative, Sadr has routinely expressed his frustration towards the sectarian trajectory followed by Nouri al-Maliki, as well as his disillusionment regarding Iraq’s future. His retirement has created an unexpected opportunity for Maliki to consolidate Shia support ahead of the elections.
Despite a worsening security situation in northern provinces and the disaffection of moderate Sunni elements, the government’s strategy to draw Shia votes has been consistent with an absence of mass-casualty attacks perpetrated across the south since November 2013. While ISF operations continue to take place in Anbar in order to contain ISIL insurgents and evacuate civilians, an exit to the crisis before the elections seems unlikely as a ground assault on Ramadi and Fallujah would risk antagonising moderate Sunni tribes established in urban areas.
The concentration of efforts in western provinces continued to provide militants with unchanged opportunities to strike neighbouring governorates, with series of complex attacks reported in Baghdad, Nineveh and Salahuddin. Aside from the Western insurgency, stagnation in the political sphere ahead of the April elections will continue to impact on levels of violence, with militant activity expected to be sustained over the next weeks.
Northern provinces continued to witness high levels of militant activity, with Nineveh and Salahuddin attracting most incidents. For the second time since December 2013, ISIL insurgents seized a town in the vicinity of Baghdad. On 13 February, Sulaiman Pek reportedly fell under the control of al-Qaeda militants, prompting the ISF to allocate resources to the area. Elsewhere in Salahuddin, a car bomb exploded while under construction and killed 20 gunmen. Meanwhile, a VBIED hit a checkpoint in Nineveh, injuring three policemen. On 15 February, two VBIEDs detonated in Mosul, causing scores of casualties and damage to government infrastructure. While complex assaults were mainly concentrated in these two regions, series of incidents involving small arms attacks and IEDs continued to plague all northern governorates. On 16 February, several IEDs detonated against an ISF patrol and caused scores of casualties. Following Sadr’s withdrawal from politics, the perception that PM Maliki has increased his chances to win a third term is likely to impact on violence levels across Sunni-dominated areas. As tensions grow between the government and Iraqi Sunnis, northern governorates are therefore expected to continue witnessing high levels of militant activity over the next weeks. Meanwhile, Kurdish provinces remained free from violence.
Although levels of violence remained high and Baghdad continued to attract series of militant attacks, the number of VBIED incidents noticeably decreased over the reporting period. Given the unchanged appetite to strike the capital with sophisticated assaults on civilians, this pattern is unlikely to be sustained, and probably followed a tactical choice to hit Baghdad more heavily in the next days. This assessment was illustrated by a series of car bombs on 17 February, which targeted gatherings in public areas as well as a medical complex in eastern Baghdad.
The attacks caused dozens of fatalities among civilians. Meanwhile, the fighting in Anbar continued to oppose pro-government factions to ISIL militants, though neither side seems capable of breaking the stalemate. On 17 February, a VBIED exploded against a police station in Ramadi, killing three policemen and wounding three others. Heightened tensions in the political sphere and the concentration of ISF efforts in Anbar will continue to provide a conducive environment for militant activity. Patterns of violence are therefore expected to be sustained over the next weeks.
Whilst southern governorates remained largely insulated from militant operations, levels of violence significantly increased in Babil province. Between 11 and 13 February, IED sequences detonated in urban areas, killing six soldiers and causing scores of casualties among civilians. On 12 February, a series of small arms attacks targeted ISF elements, killing a soldier and injuring another. Incidents across south-eastern governorates were only reported in Basra, with patterns of violence consistent with attacks routinely observed in the province. As the government seeks to consolidate Shia support ahead of the April elections, the improved security situation in the south is set to benefit Maliki and enable his coalition to boast their success in protecting Shia interests. Given the strategic importance of southern provinces in the upcoming parliamentary elections, militant penetration cannot be ruled out in the lead-up to the votes. Despite this possibility, the situation is unlikely to evolve in the next days, with Babil expected to continue attracting most of the violence.