A series of attacks this week targeted prominent Sunni leaders and Kurdish political offices as anti-government demonstrations continued in Iraq for a fourth week. While no group has thus far claimed responsibility, the attacks have the potential to escalate the political crisis in Iraq and may suggest a move by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to exacerbate already strained ethno-sectarian tensions. The targeting of Sunni officials will likely raise questions within the Sunni population regarding the possibility of the government of Iraq’s involvement and its inability to provide adequate security. AQI may also be attempting to ignite the military standoff between Iraqi and Peshmerga military forces in the north. Thus, the attacks add to the complexity of the ongoing political and security crises in Iraq.
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The first attack took place on January 13th when Iraqi Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi’s convoy wastargeted by a roadside improvised explosive device (IED) near the city of Fallujah, just west of Baghdad. Issawi was traveling between Fallujah and Abu Ghraib when the IED detonated, hitting a vehicle in the convoy but resulting in no fatalities. While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, it bears the hallmarks of AQI; however, Iraqiyya has blamed the Maliki government. Two days after the attack, Iraqiyya parliamentarian Muthar al-Janabi accused the Muthanna Brigade (also known as the 24th Infantry Brigade of the Iraqi 6th Army Division) of orchestrating the attack against Issawi. Janabi claimed that the Muthanna Brigade, which operates around Abu Ghraib, has a precedent of targeting or facilitating attacks against Maliki’s political opponents, citing two attempts against Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq in the area over the last year, including an IED attack last August. Following the assassination attempt, the Iraqiyya bloc called for a full investigation, stating that it holds Maliki responsible for security lapses as commander-in-chief.
A day later, on January 14th, unidentified gunmen assassinated tribal leader Mohammed Taher Abdul Rabbo al-Jubouri near his house outside the town of Badush in Ninewa province, northwest of Mosul. Rabbo was reportedly one of the main organizers of the ongoing anti-government demonstrations in Ninewa province. He also headed the Independent Elder Spears Bloc that is registered to participate in the upcoming provincial elections as part of the Iraqi Nakhweh Coalition in Ninewa province, a coalition consisting of tribal and religious groups in Ninewa. Atheel Nujaifi, the governor of Ninewa and a supporter of the anti-government demonstrations, and his first deputy attended Rabbo’s funeral on January 16th.
Attacks also targeted senior Sunni Awakening leaders in Anbar. On January 15th, a suicide bomber disguised as a construction worker assassinated Iraqiyya MP Ayfan Saadun al-Issawi near the town of Fallujah. The explosion killed Saadun and six others, including members of his security detail. Saadun was a prominent leader of the Awakening movement and a previous target of attacks by al-Qaeda in Iraq. He was not related to Rafia al-Issawi.In a separate incident, mortars targeted the home of Hamid al-Hayes on January 16th, a prominent Anbar Awakening leader and the chairman of the Anbar Salvation Council, which is registered for the provincial elections in Anbar. Hamid al-Hayes has generally been politically aligned with Maliki; the Anbar Salvation Council backed his candidacy for premiership in 2010. AQI is likely using the current environment both to exacerbate sectarian tensions between Sunni protesters and Maliki’s Shi’ite government and to settle old scores with the Awakening.
Following this week’s attacks, however, numerous political parties and tribal groups have focused their blame on Maliki’s government for failing to provide adequate security against terrorist attacks. In a statement, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) declared that the two recent assassinations “aim at hindering the calls for reformations and silencing the masses’ voice.” Others have accused Iran of playing a role in the attacks in order to deter anti-government demonstrations. Awakening leader Abu Risha blamed the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for facilitating the assassinations under the guise of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Furthermore, tribal leader Ali Hatem al-Suleiman warned of the use of Iranian militias to break up protests. Despite the lack of evidence of Iranian involvement in the attacks, such statements demonstrate the growing sectarian framing of the conflict.
AQI may also be attempting to aggravate ethnic tensions as car bombs targeted Kurdish political offices on January 16th in northern Iraq. In the disputed city of Kirkuk, a suicide truck bomb detonated outside the local office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Kurdish political party led by President of the Kurdistan Regional Government Massoud Barzani. On the same day, a suicide car bomb targeted the offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Tuz Khurmatu, a city south of Kirkuk. Over the past few months, tension between Baghdad and Erbil has remained high as negotiations have failed to diffuse the military standoff around Kirkuk. Violent attacks, therefore, increase the danger of miscalculation.
AQI has a long history of targeting Sunni, Kurdish, and Shi’a government officials, and this week’s attacks may be an attempt by the terrorist group to take advantage of the heightened political crisis to exacerbate ethno-sectarian tensions. Even if AQI is responsible, Maliki’s government will likely be blamed for failing to provide security, and the continued targeting of Sunni officials may fuel greater Sunni discontent in Anbar, Salah ad-Din, and Ninewa. At the same time, Iraqi security forces continue to encircle the anti-government demonstrations in an effort to prevent their spread. The Iraq-Jordan border remains closed, despite pledges of its reopening. In the north, Iraq stated that it has closed the Rabia and Walid border crossings with Syria until January 20th for unspecified security reasons. The Tigris Operations Command also announced plans to restrict protests in Hawija. Maliki has already warned demonstrators of terrorist plots in Fallujah and Ramadi, a move meant to deter protests. This week’s attacks may provide Maliki an excuse to further increase security cordons around the anti-government demonstrations, which could ultimately lead to miscalculation and confrontation with the protesters. Despite measures to contain the demonstrations, anti-government protests continue and preparations for this Friday’s rallies are well underway. AQI continued efforts to fuel the political crisis heighten the danger for escalation.