By Tom Walker, Director, Assaye Risk
Little has changed in Iraq this week as al Qaeda (AQ) and Sunni insurgent groups have continued to press home a series of devastating attacks across the northern and central belts of the country. The security situation in northern Syria and northern Iraq remains febrile and fluid as AQ and its affiliates, most notably the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) continue to battle moderate rebel groups and Kurdish militias in Syria with inevitable implications over the border in Iraq.
As groups freely move between Iraq and Syria the northwest of the country has seen a clear rise in activity during the past few weeks. The ISIL has seen record numbers of fighters flock to its ranks in recent weeks as success against more moderate rebel groups continue to increase its operational and ideological attractiveness, which will only help the group sustain operations across a wider battles space, including Iraq. Last Thursday the ISIL captured a northwestern Syrian town, Atimiyah, after ousting moderate rebel fighters from the islamist group Suqur al-islam. Geographically, this action poses little of a threat to Iraq and its security situation but the increasing influence of the ISIL remains a potent threat. The rise of AQ and ISIL has changed the regional and international diplomatic calculus significantly and has tempered the calls of regional power brokers who desire the removal of the Assad regime. In the long term the possibility of hardline islamist groups gaining strong footholds in large parts of Syria poses its own dilemma, raising serious questions about the potential transnational influences that groups like the ISIL could have on Iraq’s security situation. In the short to medium term the combat experience and increase in capacity and capability the ISIL has seen will continue to pose serious challenges for the Iraqi security forces (ISF) as ISIL fighters migrate freely between operations in Iraq and Syria.
Thursday also saw an Iraqi Shia militia group, reportedly backed by Iran, fire a salvo of mortars into Saudi Arabia in an attempt to attack a Saudi border crossing point, with little physical damage reported. In a statement to the press Wathiq al-Batat, commander of Iraq's al-Mukhtar Army militia said, "The goal was to send a warning message to Saudis to tell them that their border stations and patrol are within our range of fire," a comment that was linked to calls by the same group for Riyadh to stop meddling in the affairs of Iraq. Just how potent a threat this is remains to be seen but government temperance will most likely ensure that it does not develop into anything of scale. It is most likely in response to calls by Baghdad for closer ties to Saudi Arabia, where Iraq has not had an ambassador since before the 1990s Gulf crisis. Shia groups harbor multiple suspicions against Sunni Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both of who have been supporting Sunni rebel groups in Syria and this action is more likely linked to a spill over of aggravated Sunni-Shia antagonisms.
The latter part of the week saw significant insurgent activity along the Tigris River valley and into Baghdad. A car bomb in the busy market town of Sadiya, some 65km north of Baghdad, killed at least 25 people and wounded over 50. Further south in Taji, 20km from Baghdad, a suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint (one of many attacks specifically targeting the ISF) and killed 4 police officers and wounded 8. Later in the day the final round of high impact attacks killed 7 and wounded 18 as 3 separate bombs exploded in the western Baghdad district of Amiriya. Altogether over 45 people were killed across the country on Thursday as northern cities and Baghdad continue to suffer from almost daily attacks, predominantly around religious sites, public social areas and ISF facilities.