By Tom Walker, Director, Assaye Risk
At least 279 people have died this week in Iraq as a result of continuing sectarian violence and government crackdowns, bringing the total number of fatalities this year to approx. 1820.
Sectarian violence has continued to rage throughout Iraq in a week, which prompted one UN diplomat to publicly suggest that Iraq ‘ was at a crossroads’. Since Tuesday 24 April more than 160 people have been killed in fighting and bombings that began on Tuesday when ISF troops stormed a Sunni protest camp near Kirkuk. Actions by the ISF, tensions surrounding the result of the provincial elections, where Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition took a provisional and almost unassailable lead in eight of the 12 provinces, and transnational influences from the Syrian conflict have continued to unhinge the delicate ethno-sectarian balance resulting in widespread violence all week. It was also the first week for a while which has seen increased activity in the South of the country, undoubtedly as Sunni insurgents look to attack sensitive Shia cultural and religious sites in a bid to further exacerbate the current situation.
On Wednesday 25 April in the evening gunmen attacked Mosul, 390 km north of Baghdad, and took control of western parts of the city after using a mosque loudspeaker to rally Sunnis to join the battle against ISF. Military sources said federal police and the army-regained control only after surrounding a police headquarters occupied by militants, who were holding 17 hostages. Once again accurate reporting is somewhat hard to come by with numerous contradictory reports filling the media spectrum and government reporting chains. Independent reports suggested that the military only regained control after militants withdrew from heavily defended positions, from which they had successfully prevented the ISF from gaining traction during heavy skirmishing. In addition, in Mosul the federal police chief said 31 militants had been killed in the fighting, however a local source at the municipal mortuary said they had only received the bodies of nine militants and 15 policemen suggesting that the militants had in fact had the upper hand and greater control for most of the days fighting.
Overnight the highway between Kirkuk and Baghdad was closed as insurgents also successfully penetrated and seized the town of Suleiman Pek, 160 km north of Baghdad. In a tense standoff troops and tanks surrounded the town and gave the militants 48 hours to lay down their arms and leave, threatening to attack them otherwise, however the situation was resolved through intermediaries and an agreement was reached with the security forces and the governor of Salahuddinh province - "We withdrew from these places in order to avoid bloodletting of our people because we know that the army wants to commit a new massacre similar to what happened in Hawija," tribal leader Jamil Al-Saqr told news reporters afterwards. Despite this report local and historic reporting suggests that the militants in these areas remain very much in control and able to resist any ISF challenge to their dominance, implying that the agreement brokered on Wednesday was more of a face saving exercise for the ISF.