Road ahead darkens in Iraq after highway executions

Militants pulled over Shiite truckers at an improvised checkpoint last night and executed the 14 drivers. 

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Just days after a mass jailbreak saw an estimated 500 convicts escape from Iraqi prisons, militants at an improvised checkpoint last night killed 14 Shiite truck drivers outside of Baghdad, underscoring the rapid deterioration of security in Iraq.

According to the Associated Press, the attackers created a police diversion by first firing on a nearby military base and communications tower before stopping the convoy of Shiite truck drivers. The gunmen stole the drivers’ vehicles, reports Agence France-Presse.

"Militants blocked their way near Sulaiman Pek, checked their IDs and executed them by shooting them in the heads and chest," Talib Mohammed, the mayor of the town near where the attack took place, told Reuters by phone.

Reuters reports that sectarian violence has been on the rise in Iraq:

Sunni Islamist militants have been regaining momentum in their insurgency against the Shi'ite-led government in recent months, invigorated by the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has inflamed sectarian tensions in Iraq and the wider region.

Last month The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy wrote about violence in Iraq and how it stacked up against other conflicts around the globe. He noted that Iraq is less violent than it was during the war, but the press “frequently wonders if the country could descend into war again. What if the war never ended?”

May was the most violent month in Iraq since June 2008, with 1,045 people killed. The next most violent month since 2008? This April, with 712 people killed.

Death has stalked Iraqis in the form of car bombs on mosques and markets, assassinations of political figures, and organized massacres of security forces, prompting many to wonder if Iraq could plunge back into another sectarian civil war like the one that raged in the middle of the last decade, and claimed over 3,000 lives a month at its height.

"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," UN special representative to Iraq, Martin Kobler, said earlier this month.

The website Iraq Body Count, which gathers statistics on confirmed deaths from violence in Iraq, reports a civilian death count of 759 so far for the month of July. That makes it on track to be one of the deadliest months this year, and since 2008.

Attacks have not only escalated in recent months, but they have also become “more audacious,” reports a separate AP story. The prison break on Sunday, carried out by the Al Qaeda-aligned Islamic State in Iraq, put this on full display, emphasizing the success recent attacks have had on destabilizing the government. 

“This attack is unlike any other attack when they target a coffee shop or a public market,” Hamid Fadhil, a political science professor at Baghdad University, told The New York Times after the prison attack. “They are targeting the most secured place with big numbers of security forces.”

“If Al Qaeda can attack a prison, it means they can do whatever they want whenever they want,” lawyer Meluk Abdil Wahab told The Times.

Mr. Murphy from the Monitor wrote in a separate story that the attacks on Abu Ghraib and Taji hold weighty symbolism for Iraqis. Abu Ghraib, for example, served as a pre-execution torture house for mainly political rivals under Saddam Hussein.

Iraq's sectarian civil war in some ways never really ended, US protestations that the "surge" brought peace to Iraq to the contrary. The Shiite dominated government has behaved autocratically, clamped down on freedom of speech, continued the tradition of torture in Iraq's prisons and police stations, and cut Sunni Arabs out of the political process.

Not surprisingly some of the Sunni Arabs who were promised a seat at the table in the "new Iraq" but have instead been systematically marginalized are taking up arms again. Lately they've been given heart by Sunni jihadi successes across the border in Syria (where Bashar al-Assad is allied with Shiite Iran and enjoys at least the tepid support of the Maliki government), with Iraqi jihadis from Anbar and other border provinces playing a prominent role in the Jabhat al-Nusra insurgent group, and those returning home reinvigorating their comrades. 

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