A well-planned and extensive ISIS assault against political rallies and polling stations formed part of a predictable surge in violence as Iraq prepares to vote in the first elections since the US withdrawal. The scale of the challenge facing the ISF, as they prepare to secure the electorate who will cast their votes at over 48,000 different polling stations, is illustrated by the increase in violence since the last elections in March 2010. The number of casualties in the month preceding those elections was under a third of recorded casualties in March 2014. On 28 April alone there were nine separate suicide bombings with a further three bombers killed by security forces prior to detonation. The rush of attacks largely targeted polling stations as the ISF voted early, although the deadliest attack targeted Kurdish PUK supporters in the disputed town of Khanaqin as they celebrated the television footage of ailing Kurdish President Talabani voting by proxy in Germany.
While the ISF turnout on Monday was high, the surge in violence as well as the explicit ISIS warning threatening voters with death, will affect turnout on 30 April, especially in areas around Baghdad where ISIS influence has encroached in recent weeks. Vehicle movement restrictions and a strong ISF presence will reassure many and significantly impede insurgent operations but attacks on voters are likely and suicide bombers on foot pose the greatest threat. The number of IDF incidents also surged this week to the highest rate this year and are likely to be sustained as insurgents target voting lines from a distance. Amongst the violence and the fractured political landscape, and in the absence of politicians, or lists articulating detailed manifestos which outline their proposed paths towards reform, voters are most likely to vote along tribal and sectarian lines. With much of Anbar under the control of insurgents and ISIS on the outskirts of Baghdad, whether the Shia majority vote for change, and the uncertainty which surrounds it, or for perceived stability will largely determine whether Maliki is able to assemble a majority in the coming weeks and months.
The suicide attack in Khanaqin in Diyala Province which killed up to 30 Kurdish supporters of the PUK as they celebrated near the PUK office in the town demonstrates the increased ISIS presence in the province and its ability to deploy effective suicide attackers at short notice. With Baghdad the focus of the ISF operation to secure the elections, it is likely that towns and cities in the four northern provinces, and particularly those in the disputed territories such as Kirkuk, will bear the brunt of election day violence with attacks targeting ISF, Kurds and other (northern) minority groups. The majority of suicide attacks during the reporting period occurred in these provinces and Nineveh, Diyala, Kirkuk and Salahuddin accounted for 60% of violence nationwide. IEDs have been deployed extensively against personnel linked to the elections, particularly in Mosul. Six journalists were injured when their bus was targeted as they headed to a polling station to cover the preparations for the vote, an incident which clearly indicates the wide scope of insurgent targets in the run up to the elections. The Kurdish Provinces remained secure and security forces have also surged to protect the population during the elections.
During the reporting period, Iraqi helicopter gunships attacked trucks travelling in eastern Syria believed to have been part of an ISIS convoy moving to resupply fighters in Iraq. It is the first time Iraq has attacked across the border during the course of this conflict and represents the first attempts to tackle the cross-border threat by striking at ISIS in depth. Anbar represents the eastern edge of an Islamist rebel corridor which runs as far west as Aleppo and, with Syrian government forces unable to regain control of the east in the short term, further offensive ISF incursions, likely conducted with the assistance of foreign intelligence, are likely. Areas south and east of Fallujah saw ISIS units clash with the ISF but not increase their territorial advantage. Continued violence in Anbar is certain, especially in Fallujah and Ramadi as insurgent groups attempt to claim credit for disrupting the voting there. The most significant attack in Baghdad targeted a rally by Asaib Ahl al Haq (AAH) killing 33 people. The political group, formerly an Iranian-backed Shia militia, is known to retain its links to armed individuals and repercussions against Sunni political leaders in Baghdad and southern provinces are likely although a larger mobilisation of armed supporters is unlikely.
The threat of VBIEDs being deployed in the southern provinces remains high although movement restrictions on election day will largely mitigate this threat. Suicide bombers may be deployed on foot and Babil, particularly its Shia districts, remains most at risk from such attacks. Babil saw the majority of violence in the southern states this week largely in the form of attacks against ISF, as is the usual pattern. While one VBIED killed ten people in the province, later in the week ISF raided a VBIED factory in Iskandariya which was destroyed during the operation disrupting future VBIED operations. In Basra eight separate shootings represented the increase in political tension in the run-up to the vote. One killing, which saw a Sunni election candidate shot dead, may have been a reprisal by AAH for the stadium bombing which occurred earlier that day. AAH maintain a strong presence in Basra and have been blamed for recent political violence; much of their electoral credibility is linked to their-militia past and robust opposition to the US.