Amid levels of violence in line with previous weekly averages, movements in the political sphere highlighted the different electoral strategies being followed by the government ahead of the parliamentary elections. On 25 February, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stated the importance of maintaining the elections in April, confirming that the current timeframe is consistent with his best interests. Maliki’s position indeed appears relatively favourable with an improved security situation in the southern provinces, which the government will be able to capitalise upon to garner Shia support.
While the prospect of Maliki running for a third term is rejected by a majority of coalitions, the State of Law bloc has not put forward an alternative candidate for the premiership. With no credible opponent within Shia political parties and a sustained decrease in militant activity in the south, exploiting this opportunity to consolidate support will mitigate the importance of post-election alliances. Meanwhile, the dispute between Erbil and Baghdad over the control of oil revenues culminated with the withholding of Kurdistan’s annual budget. Reactivating the dispute with the KRG could allow Maliki to divert the attention of Iraqis from the ongoing insurgency in Anbar and levels of violence unseen since 2008.
On 1 March, the army agreed to extend the unilateral ceasefire in Fallujah by another week, following criticism from local Sunni tribes that airstrikes were hitting civilians. Although the government has been reluctant to favour political dialogue over military strikes, the changing dynamics of the conflict have forced the government to consider some concessions to bring Sunni tribes across to their side. The insurgency now appears to be spread across several regions, with groups of ISIL militants focused on attacking villages in Suleiman Bek district, Salahuddin governorate. This fighting on multiple fronts has contributed to an increase in casualties across central and northern governorates, which are likely to remain the focus of insurgents over the next weeks.
Most violent incidents continued to be concentrated in Nineveh and Salahuddin, owing to their proximity with militant bases. On 01 March, dozens of gunmen attacked the village of Maftool near Suleiman Bek, which was briefly occupied by insurgents in February. The militants destroyed several homes belonging to ISF elements and kidnapped three Sahwa members, without causing any casualties despite the detonation of several IEDs. In Nineveh, three car bombs hit areas in the vicinity of Mosul, causing injuries among civilians and soldiers. On 25 February, a VBIED killed two civilians and wounded four. The nature and scale of militant operations in Salahuddin indicates that the momentum of the Anbar insurgency has spread to other governorates and that the ISF does not have sufficient capabilities to contain militants within urban areas. This trend is likely to foster further violence across northern governorates, as militants seek to export the Anbar insurgency to neighbouring regions. Meanwhile, Kurdish provinces remained free from violence.
Central authorities appear to have acknowledged the necessity to form alliances with local tribes in Anbar, with the extension of the ceasefire in Fallujah likely to appease moderate Sunni factions. As a result of this shift away from Fallujah, militant operations were predominantly confined to Ramadi and Haditha. On 27 February, a VBIED detonated against the home of a local figure in Haditha district, killing six civilians and injuring 11 others. Unless a solid agreement is concluded between the government and local tribesmen, the deployment of militants to northern provinces is likely to divert the focus of ISF forces and provide militants with opportunities to strengthen their presence in Anbar. The increase in militant activity in the north has seemingly impacted on levels of violence in Baghdad, with only two VBIED incidents reported. The strategic locations of these detonations caused scores of casualties, with four civilians and six policemen killed in the first explosion, and 36 civilians injured. On 27 February, a second car bomb in Sadr City killed 30 civilians and injured 51 others. Given current security dynamics, central provinces are expected to witness similar levels of violence over the next weeks.
Incidents in southern governorates remained consistent with previous weekly assessments, as the region was largely insulated from militant attacks. The decrease in violence levels in Babil governorate is a further indication that insurgents are currently focusing on northern targets. Although the pattern of mass-casualty attacks across the south-eastern region has been disrupted, the capture of two VBIEDs in Basra on 02 February highlights the continued threat against Shia-dominated areas. In the lead-up to the elections, the motivations to strike Shia governorates will be heightened, as southern provinces have traditionally formed the core of Maliki’s electorate. Although southern provinces outside Babil are expected to remain free from major incidents over the next days, their longer term outlook is more uncertain and the security situation in the region will be determinant in the upcoming elections.