By Tom Walker, Director, Assaye Risk
After a brief week-long hiatus the intensity and number of high impact attacks against political and sectarian targets increased with bombings countrywide as Iraqis prepare to go to the polls on Saturday to vote for members of provincial councils in a ballot that will be a measure of the political stability and Al-Maliki’s true political clout across the sectarian divides. This increase in attacks follows a predictable pattern of intense activity followed by re-supply and preparation, normally spanning 10-14 days. This week the number of combined ISF and civilian fatalities was higher at 158; bringing the total number of fatalities this year to approx. 1306.
On 12 Apr at least seven people were killed and 25 wounded when a bomb exploded in front of a Sunni Muslim mosque in Diyala province as worshippers were leaving after Friday prayers. This was followed by car bombs and blasts in cities across Iraq 15 Apr, including two explosions at a checkpoint outside Baghdad's international airport, which killed at least 33 people. The attacks were mostly car bombs, including two blasts that killed two passengers at a checkpoint as they were on their way into the Baghdad airport complex. Attacks on the heavily guarded airport and the fortified International Zone housing many embassies are rare.
Further afield attacks also took place in Kirkuk, Tuz Khurmato and other towns from north to south long the Tigris River Valley. The most deadly attack was in Tuz Khurmato, 170 km (105 miles) north of Baghdad, where four bombs targeting police patrols killed 5 people and wounded 67, officials said.
Later on 15 Apr, a further 10 people were killed by a bomb at a car market in the Baghdad Shi'ite district of Sadr City and a blast outside a cafe in Khalis, a Shi'ite district in Diyala province. As yet no one has claimed responsibility but the capability and sophistication of these multiple attacks points towards the ISI’s continuing campaign against Shi'ites and the government, however this series of attacks could also be in direct retaliation for the attack against a Sunni mosque on 15 Apr. The ISI is regaining ground, especially in the western desert near Syria's border, where it is benefitting from the flow of Sunni fighters opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, especially now that the ISI have joined forces with the al-Nusra Front rebels fighting in Syria. The ISI will continue to tap into Sunni frustrations, with many Iraqi Sunnis feel with many security experts saying the ISI will seek to use the current situation and domestic political uncertainty as a recruiting tool among Sunnis who see themselves as victimized by GoI.
In line with previous weeks reporting the Syrian this week continued to seep into Iraq’s domestic fabric. This seepage was further confirmed by the news that Iraqi Shi'ite militias have begun openly acknowledging they are fighting in Syria in what they see as a worthy battle against rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad, especially his hardline Sunni opponents. By doing so Iraqi Shi'ite fighters may gain recruitment momentum to help Assad in a war that is continuously splitting the region along sectarian lines. In recent months, Iraqi Shi'ite militants have said volunteers are crossing into Syria to fight, often alongside Assad's troops, or to protect the Sayyida Zeinab shrine on the outskirts of Damascus, a particularly holy place for Shi'ites. Whilst it was widely accepted that Shiia militias were defending holy sites militia leaders, who have mostly been inactive since U.S. troops left Iraq, had been reluctant to openly acknowledge fighting in Syria, possibly because influential Shi'ite clergy opposed Iraqis joining the battle. Despite this initial reluctance it is likely that many Shiia militias now see a direct need to combat a growing Sunni insurgency and as such have ‘legitimised’ their actions in Syria. Syria's upheaval is a political nightmare for Iraq's Shi'ite leaders who believe a messy fall of Assad would fragment Syria along sectarian lines and bring to power a hostile, hardline Sunni Muslim regime that could stir up Iraq's own combustible Sunni-Shi'ite mix. This has lead many to speculate how genuine the GoI policy of non-interference in Syria really is, especially when one also considers that it refuses to endorse Western and Arab League demands for the removal of Iran's ally Assad.