Thursday, January 24, 2013

2013 Iraq Weekly Update #4: The Islamic State of Iraq Increases Spectacular Attacks

January 24th, 2013
By Sam Wyer
Iraq SIGACTs January 1-23, 2013
The heat map displays attacks in Iraq from January 1-23, 2013. Data was compiled from open-source reporting from Western and Iraqi sources. This map does not provide an exhaustive account of security incidents in Iraq during the period in question; rather, it represents geographic concentrations of violence.
The volume and lethality of terrorist attacks in Iraq has risen in January 2013 compared to the final three months of 2012. In the context of Iraq’s current political crises, these attacks threatened to ignite growing sectarian, ethnic, and political tensions and suggest a concerted effort by radical Sunni elements to undermine the peaceful anti-government movement and eliminate its tribal leadership.
So far, there have been more deaths in January 2013 than in December, November, or October of 2012. According to the AFP count, at least 218 people have been killed since the New Year, up from 144 in December, 160 in November, and 136 in October of last year. The British NGO Iraq Body Count marks January’s death toll at over 300. According to the Olive Group, the week of January 14 – 20, 2013 saw the highest number of reported security incidents in Iraq in the last 12 months, with the number of incidents in the North Central Region (Sulaymaniyah, Kirkuk, Salah ad-Din, and Diyala) nearly double the weekly average. The rise in this month’s volume of attacks and number of causalities demonstrates the enduring capacity of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the umbrella organization of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the group likely responsible for the majority of the attacks.
In the summer of 2012, ISI launched the so-called “Destroying the Walls” campaign in an attempt to free Sunni prisoners and regain lost territory in Iraq. In particular, the campaign featured three attack waves in July, August, and September, each hitting a wide range of targets in a single day, in some cases from Basra to Mosul. This month’s attacks, however, have not occurred as a single attack wave, but have come in the form of weekly spectacular attacks that have included suicide bombings, shootings, and political assassinations.
ISI likely launched high-profile, targeted attacks in order to thwart the political and tribal leadership of the current anti-government movement in northern and western Iraq and take revenge against former Sahwa members. In the past week, suspected al-Qaeda gunmen assassinated two Sunni tribal leaders, Saber Ahmed al-Abassi in Salah ad-Din and Mohammed Hadi al-Julaimi in Anbar. Both individuals are former Sahwa leaders and reportedly helped organize the recent anti-government protests. These targeted attacks follow last week’s assassinations of Mohammed Abdul Rabbo al-Jubouri in Ninewa and Iraqiyya MP Ayfan Saadun al-Issawi in Anbar, both prominent supporters of the ongoing demonstrations. As Iraqi Sunnis become increasingly disillusioned with the failures of political participation, ISI will likely increase its attempts to radicalize the anti-government movement and sideline Sunni tribal leaders.
In a statement released on January 20th, ISI claimed responsibility for the assassination of Ayfan Saadun al-Issawi. The group labeled al-Issawi as a traitor and a “dog of the Americans,” stating that his death should “be an example and a lesson for those after him.” Voicing its support for the rebel forces in Syria, ISI justified attacks in Anbar as a means to “cut off the vein that is extending the life of the [Assad] regime to kill your brothers in the Levant.” ISI has demonstrated its intent to conduct both targeted political assassinations and large scale bombings, in order to take advantage of the growing sectarian crisis in Iraq and Syria and seek retribution against former Sahwa leaders.
ISI attacks are not limited to Sunni areas. Several recent high-profile attacks have targeted Shi’ite and Kurdish areas of Salah ad-Din and Kirkuk, and they coincide with a tense military standoff between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the disputes territories along the Green Line, threatening to exacerbate tensions.
On January 23, a suicide bomber infiltrated a funeral procession in the Shi’ite Sayyid al-Shuhada Mosque in the northern town of Tuz Khurmatu. At least 42 people were killed and dozens more wounded, making the attack the deadliest since ISI’s late summer “Destroying the Walls” campaign. Tuz Khurmatu sits on the ethno-sectarian fault line between the Kurdish Regional Government in the north and the Iraqi central government and has been a primary target for ISI attacks in the past because of its demographics. The town is home to a number of Turkmen Shi’ites and Kurds. In recent weeks, ISI has targeted Kurdish political offices, including the local office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Tuz Khurmatu on January 16.
The geographic spread of ISI’s recent attacks is consistent with the group’s historic areas of operation in northern and central Iraq. This month’s attacks are concentrated around Fallujah and Abu Ghraib west of Baghdad; towns in southern Diyala province; areas along the Tigris river in Salah ad-Din province; and the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul in the north. These areas are also the focal points for the anti-government demonstrations. In statements released this month, ISI has voiced its support of the anti-government movement, while continuing to assassinate the tribal leaders organizing the efforts. Unsurprisingly, many prominent tribal leaders, including Ali Hatem al-Suleiman in Anbar, have rejected ISI’s support for the protests. This month’s attacks are a reminder that ISI is a powerful actor with the capability to threaten the fragile ethno-sectarian balance in Iraq. As the political crises in Iraq progress, ISI will continue to take advantage of growing tensions and exacerbate the already flammable situation in Iraq.