Iraq sees deadliest month in 5 years

The violence has spanned the country, with an assassination attempt, explosions, shootings, and a series of bombings in Baghdad this week alone. Can the government bring the situation under control?

Khalid Mohammed/AP
Baghdad municipality workers clean up while restaurant staff react after a parked car bomb exploded near the popular restaurant in the Ur neighborhood in northern Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday. With the uptick in violence spanning the country in May, Iraq has seen the deadliest month since June 2008, according to the United Nations.

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More than 500 people were killed in Iraq in May, about 120 of them since May 27 alone, making it the deadliest month since June 2008, according to the United Nations.

The uptick in violence has put increased pressure on the government to prove its ability to keep sectarian tensions under control and prevent the country from spiraling into a renewed civil war.

The death toll prompted a warning from UN special representative to Iraq, Martin Kobler. "Systemic violence is ready to explode at any moment if all Iraqi leaders do not engage immediately to pull the country out of this mayhem," Mr. Kobler said in Baghdad, according to CNN. 

The violence has spanned the country, with a failed assassination against Anbar Province's governor, explosions and shootings in Mosul, and a series of bombings in Baghdad this week alone.

The deaths stem from an explosion of Iraq's constantly simmering Sunni-Shiite tensions, which were sparked earlier this year by Sunni protests throughout the country against their political marginalization. The situation escalated last month, after security forces violently dispersed a Sunni protest camp. 

Under former dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Sunni minority had outsized political influence. Since coming into government following the US toppling of Mr. Hussein's government, Iraq's long sidelined Shiite majority has steadily consolidated political power, excluding Sunni officials.

That the recent violence has targeted both Sunnis and Shiites is telling. Sunni insurgent forces, most notably Al Qaeda in Iraq, "have long targeted Iraq's Shiite majority and government security forces. But Sunni mosques and other targets have also been struck over the past several weeks, raising the possibility that Shiite militias are also growing more active," the Associated Press reports. 

The government is under pressure to prove it is capable of curtailing the violence. It has imposed a ban on many cars in Baghdad in an effort to thwart additional car bombings and footage of Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki inspecting checkpoints throughout the city was broadcast on state television, AP reports.

“These daily patterns of car bomb attacks … in Baghdad and some other cities (are) really unacceptable for the people of Iraq, who have suffered so much,” Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Thursday.

“It’s the government’s responsibility to redouble its efforts, to revise its security plans, to contain this wave, to prevent it from sliding into sectarian conflict and war,” he added. “That should not happen again.” 

A predominant concern among Iraq observers is that the government is too weak to bring the current situation under control.

“Iraq is a reactor that’s overheating and there’s little coolant available,” Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Beirut-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies, told AP. “Iraq’s nascent politics is not equipped to sustain the current dangerous levels of internal and external pressure. There needs to be an off-ramp to relieve some of the pressure.”

Mushreq Abbas, a contributor to Al Monitor and managing editor of Al Hayat's Iraq bureau, writes that one of the clearest signs of the country's fragility is the reemergence of the term "death squad," which was used during Iraq's civil war to describe the groups of both Sunnis and Shiites who carried out "killings based on ID cards." Rumors about false checkpoints set up throughout Baghdad for the purpose of checking IDs have run rife.

The interior ministry has denied the reports, but that has not stemmed panic. 

Mr. Abbas writes that the elimination of these death squads is one of Mr. Maliki's biggest achievements. 

It could be said that the major achievement made by Maliki throughout his rule, which began in 2006, is eliminating the death squads through the so-called Saulat al-Fursan [Charge of the Nights] military operations. These operations were followed by a large-scale cleansing of the security forces, which included hundreds of officers and soldiers who were believed to be involved in one way or another in the establishment of the death squads. This achievement is not only about Maliki himself, as head of the government or leader of the State of Law Coalition, but mainly about the people’s trust in the security services, and whether or not this trust will be undermined by high rates of violence and the return of various aspects of the civil war.

However, Abbas continues, the security and military forces are still accused of favoring Shiites over Sunnis, and Maliki's party over others, and they have not made enough of an effort to show that they are first and foremost "protectors and defenders of the people against terrorist acts."

With government legitimacy tenuous and the proliferation of insurgent groups, there seem to be few options for arresting the country's spiraling violence. Abbas writes: "Today, the urgent question in the streets of Baghdad is, 'Have all opportunities to prevent a civil war been squandered?'"

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