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Q&A: What's behind the spike of violence in Iraq?

Iraq is backsliding into sectarian violence last seen in 2006-2008. GlobalPost talked to analysts about the deteriorating situation there.

Iraq bombings sectarian violence 2013Enlarge
Iraqis walk past a wall that was destroyed in a car bombing outside Ahl al-Bayya' mosque on July 29, 2013 in south eastern Baghdad. (ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)

Hardly a week has gone by in 2013 without gunmen and bombers targeting scores of people in Iraq.

Sectarian violence in the country has reached levels last seen between 2006 and 2008, renewing fears of an outright civil war between Shias and Sunnis.

While July's death toll estimates were the highest in five years, the United Nations said Tuesday that nearly 1,000 people had been killed in September.

Much of the recent violence has been attributed to Sunni extremists fomenting unrest and putting pressure on the Shia-led government.

The attacks have largely targeted Shia civilians and Iraqi security forces.

Iraq's Sunni minority, which complained of being politically marginalized under the post-Saddam government, has also felt the pressure of a recent government crackdown against Sunni protesters.

The security situation in Iraq deteriorated further when security forces allegedly attacked a protest camp in the northern city of Hawija in April. While the Iraqi government put the death toll at 27, protesters reported at least 50 killed.

Human Rights Watch called for an investigation into whether security forces used excessive and lethal force, and while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki commissioned an investigation, no results have been released.

Since then, violence has continued on a near-daily basis culminating in last week's massive prison break that saw about 500 convicts escape, including hardened militants and Al Qaeda operatives.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, formed through a merger between Al Qaeda's Syrian and Iraqi branches, claimed responsibility for orchestrating the jailbreak.

GlobalPost talked to Iraq expert and Middle East analyst Jared Levy (JL) and Patrick Osgood (PO), Kurdistan correspondent for the Iraq Oil Report.

A massive spike in violence has seen thousands of Iraqis killed in violence in recent months. Why has this happened?

JL: My read is that upticks in violence in Iraq are catalyzed by periods of political instability. This is particularly true of violence perpetrated by Sunni takfiri groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISI) as well as more nationalistic Sunni insurgent groups like Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN). These groups are looking to maximize the impact of their attacks.

In this vein, I think this current wave of violence is linked to the protest movement that spread across the provinces with a majority Sunni-Arab population following the arrest of several of former Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi’s bodyguards. [Editor's noteRafi al-Issawi became the first senior Sunni member of the Shia-led Maliki government to resign in March 2013 in the wake of the anti-government protests.] That being said, at this stage in Iraq, I think there’s also a healthy degree of depraved nihilism at work as well.

What was the protest encampment in Hawija about and why did the government crack down so hard?

JL: I think the government made the decision to clear the protest camp for two reasons. First, it was a response to a recent incident of individuals connected to the protest movement in Hawija attacking security forces in the area. Second, at that phase of the protest movement, I think the central government wanted to take a stand that they weren’t going to allow sustained financially disruptive activity, such as permanent encampments, or protracted blocking of major highways.

Iraq's violence is characterized by a shocking number of suicide bombings. Who are the bombers and why do they do it?

JL: There was a time — primarily from 2005 to 2007 — when a significant percentage of suicide bombings in Iraq were carried out by foreign fighters from North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East. My sense is that is no longer the case, and currently the overwhelming majority of suicide bombers are Iraqi. As for why people do it, there’s no magic variable that we can put our fingers on to understand why people become suicide bombers. Those motivations are different across time and space.

I’ve never seen data on the backgrounds of deceased suicide bombers in Iraq, but if I had to guess on motivations; there is no shortage of young men who have had one or more family members killed, been exposed to years of sectarian violence or violence perpetrated by coalition forces, who feel they have no economic prospects.

I would also speculate that in most suicide attacks, there are multiple actors at play, each with different motivations, so it's not just a suicide bomber acting in a vacuum. There are financiers, political or religious ideologues, and operational planners. All of these actors are to some degree involved in manipulating the actual bomber into mentally preparing for, and then carrying out a suicide attack.

The recent prison break in Iraq reportedly saw 500 criminals and extremist militants released back onto the streets. What are the consequences?

JL: There are a significant number of high value AQI/ISI prisoners, many of whom were awaiting death sentences for acts of terrorism, being housed at Abu Ghraib prison. I haven’t seen a dossier of the names and supposed affiliations of the escapees, but at this stage, it seems fair to assume that some of these escapees were seasoned AQI/ISI members. I would also dare speculate that for AQI, busting non-AQI members out of Abu Ghraib, many of whom were no doubt subjected to human rights abuses by Iraqi security forces, is a pretty strong recruiting tool for that pool of escapees, but also in general.

As evidenced by the recent spree of violence culminated by fairly sophisticated operations targeting two supposedly highly secured facilities, and periodic coordinated attacks across a wide geographic space, Al Qaeda retains the ability to wreak havoc on a wide scale. That said, AQI remains a fringe group. A significant proportion of their violence has targeted Iraq’s Sunni Arab populace. AQI and affiliates spent years literally killing entire families and hanging them from chandeliers. I don’t care how politically and economically marginalized civilians in Anbar, Ninewa, Diyala, Salahaddin and Kirkuk are, I don’t see them flocking en masse to AQI, or looking at the group as their path to redemption. I would be more worried about the capacity for nationalist groups like JRTN to cultivate that kind of broad support if relations between Baghdad and the provinces I just mentioned sour further.

How have the Kurdish areas fared during all of this bloodshed?

PO: Kurds in Kirkuk, for example, have borne an increase in violence over the last six months or so, with the usually somewhat safer Kurdish areas, including political offices, targeted by bombings. In the last two weeks there have also been more gun attacks and bombings targeting the Kurdish Peshmerga. But inside the three main provinces of the region — Dohuk, Erbil and Suleimaniyah — things have remained remarkably safe. Unlike the rest of Iraq, no opposition of the incumbent regional government wants to see its security apparatus fail.

With that loyalty, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has created a pervasive and effective intelligence network that would be impossible in the rest of Iraq. The concern now may be that, with Al Qaeda and other militias looking to widen any points of fracture, the KRG's security apparatus in Iraq's disputed territories could be sorely tested, and the presence of Kurdish forces in some of these areas is not necessarily a guarantor of increased security. The area southwest of Kirkuk running down to Tuz Khurmato in Salahedinn province — where the Turkmen population has been targeted aggressively — is a case in point.

Can we expect more in the future? What is the prognosis?

JL: One thing that will be interesting to watch is how [Prime Minister] Maliki responds to this deluge of violence. Historically, he’s run for office on a security and stability platform. He really can’t do that any more in any kind of credible fashion. So, instead you’re going to see increasingly hostile rhetoric certainly from the Mutahidun bloc of Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi attacking Maliki for security failures, and there will likely be an increase in that rhetoric from some of the other Shia Islamist parties, notably the Sadrist’s Ahrar Block and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.

All of these aforementioned entities are going to attack Maliki for the deteriorating security environment in the lead up to next year’s parliamentary elections. What I worry is that Maliki will sense he is increasingly boxed into a corner, and in an effort to stem attacks, take increasingly draconian security measures that are just going to serve to further polarize Iraq’s populace into pro- and anti-status quo camps.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/iraq/130726/iraq-whats-behind-the-violence-and-recent-prison-break