This month, as Western media fixed its eyes on the tragic events in Oklahoma and Woolwich, a largely unsung tragedy was unfolding in the Middle East. Strings of attacks have shaken Iraq, claiming scores of lives but have gone largely unnoticed.
The month of May, however, saw the most sustained sectarian violence in Iraq since US troops withdrew in December 2011. This upsurge in clashes between minority Sunnis and Shi’ites has sparked fears that Iraq could be revisiting the dark days of the sectarian war of 2006 and 2007, when tens of thousands were killed.
“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,” Martin Kobler said yesterday. Strong words indeed from the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq.
The UK-based monitor Iraq Body Count reported in May alone, violence claimed 839 civilian lives, making it the most violent for almost two years. The number of casualties has been rising steadily: their data shows an over 200% rise in civilian casualties since December 2012.
Recently, Sunnis have begun mass demonstrations against alleged mistreatment by the Shia-led government. Tensions have intensified after a deadly crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in April, that claimed 53 casualties.
Bomb blasts and shootings have been ripping through mostly populated areas, such as markets or mosques, in ethnically mixed and often disputed cities and regions all over the country. In the last three days alone, the sectarian conflict has claimed 161 lives, mostly by car bombs and gunfire. This pushes May’s death toll to 839, an all-new high since April 2010.
The week before last saw bombings and shootings causing at least 239 reported civilian casualties. And Monday, May 20th, marked the deadliest day by far, when 134 were killed across the nation – 126 of these by explosive weapons. The deadliest single attack hit the Abu Ghraib area on Tuesday, May 21, when a car bomb exploded near a Sunni mosque, taking the lives of at least 10 and wounding a further 21.
“I heard a powerful bang and a fireball near the main gate of the mosque…The bodies of worshippers were scattered and some were shouting for help bleeding to death,” a policeman stationed near the mosque told Reuters.
In addition to the rising number of deaths, the waves of attacks have shown a rapid increase in the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), one of the most harmful and unpredictable types of weapons. Iraq Body Count saw 42 IED attacks in May so far, compared to 31 in April and 26 in May 2012.
The nature of IEDs is disastrous. As AOAV’s latest publication on explosive violence has shown, IEDs detonated in populated areas cause nine out of 10 casualties to be unarmed civilians. AOAV’s report also recorded an average of 32 civilian casualties per attack from the use of car bombs, a type of IED, in populated areas. This compares to six civilian casualties per incident in other areas.
In this way, it is clear that the recent surge in violence in Iraq will be disproportionally impact innocent civilians. It looks set to be a bloody summer.
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