Deadly Blasts Stoke Fears of Sectarian Strife in Iraq


iraq explosion 082813BAGHDAD — In the span of roughly an hour, as the streets were choked with morning commuters and shoppers, more than a dozen explosions struck Baghdad on Wednesday, killing at least 65 people and wounding far more, officials said. It was the latest in a series of terrorist attacks that have raised new fears that Iraq is returning to the bloody sectarian violence that nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007.

In a scene reminiscent of that earlier violence, gunmen stormed the home of a Shiite family in the Sunni-dominated town of Latifiya, south of Baghdad, and slaughtered seven people, including four children, with knives. Later, some local news media reports said the bodies had been decapitated. In the evening, two more car bombs struck in Amel, a Shiite-dominated district of Baghdad, killing six people.

The explosions in Baghdad, which struck mainly Shiite neighborhoods, follow a series of beheadings in recent days, some of which were claimed by Al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate.

The relentless series of coordinated attacks, which involved car bombs and suicide attackers, hit public markets, restaurants and a bus stop. In Baghdad alone, at least 65 people were killed, officials said. Nationwide, the carnage left more than 80 people dead from attacks on soldiers and civilians in Babel, Kirkuk and Mosul.

In recent weeks, the security forces have undertaken a series of operations, mostly in Sunni neighborhoods, as part of a campaign the government is calling “the revenge of the martyrs.” The Shiite-dominated government claims to have arrested hundreds of Sunni extremists and discovered a factory that makes car bombs, but the operations have further antagonized the Sunni community, with only limited effect on reining in the violence.

The government has also engaged in a public relations campaign by releasing statements in the wake of the attacks that state lower death tolls than those reported by other security officials. Around midday on Wednesday, the Ministry of Interior published a statement online reporting that 18 people had been killed. However, a government official who for years has provided casualty figures to the news media had already said that more than 60 people had been killed.

The surge in violence in Iraq is partially the result of spillover from the civil war in Syria, where Qaeda-linked groups fostered by Iraqi extremists are some of the fiercest fighting units. The groups’ successes in Syria have emboldened Sunni extremists in Iraq to step up their fight. The war has also exacerbated sectarian tensions within Iraq as the country’s Shiites, who make up the majority of the population, have largely sided with the Syrian government, while Sunnis are backing the Syrian rebels, fellow Sunnis.

Opponents of the government, who since the Arab uprisings unfolded in 2011 have sought to organize a protest movement in Iraq, had been planning demonstrations for Saturday. However, on Wednesday the government directed citizens not to gather in protest because of the risk of further violence.

For Iraqis, the car bomb attacks are terrifying enough. But in recent days, grisly images of executions by Al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate, a Sunni insurgent group that has renamed itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to reflect its growing role in both countries, have emerged on the Internet.

On Wednesday, photographs were released on a Web site affiliated with Al Qaeda that showed the beheaded corpses of government soldiers who had been abducted near the northern city of Mosul. In Diyala, a violent province north of Baghdad whose population is a mix of Sunnis and Shiites, gunmen stormed the home of a policeman on Tuesday morning and beheaded him, according to a security official in the province.

And in a chilling video released several days ago by Al Qaeda, gunmen are seen on a highway in the remote desert of Anbar Province flagging down truck drivers and asking them if they are Sunni or Shiite. Three of the drivers — who were apparently Syrians and members of the Alawite sect, the offshoot of Shiism that dominates the ruling class in Syria — are lined up and shot in their backs.

NY Times