Iraq Update #34- Data Suggests Rise in Violence Along Historic Fault Lines

Baghdad Belts and Iraq SIGACTS July 15-August 15, 2012The heat maps display attacks in Iraq for the period of July 15-August 15, 2012. Information was drawn from available open-source news reporting from Iraqi and western media. Where possible, the attacks were cross-referenced with other sources. These maps do not provide an exhaustive account of security incidents in Iraq during the period in question; rather, they represent concentrations of violence.

Data suggests rise in violence along historic fault lines

Violence in Iraq has risen in recent months, both in terms of number of attacks and casualties.[1] July 2012 was the deadliest month in Iraq since August 2010.[2] Iraqi government figures suggest that 325 people were killed in near-daily attacks in July.[3]

Open-source data suggest that there has not been a sustained decrease in violence following the withdrawal of U.S. troops in late 2011. Rather, Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence has risen. According to statistics compiled by the Olive Group, weekly recorded attacks in 2012 averaged roughly 110 incidents.[4] Weekly attacks in late July and early August averaged around 155, a notable rise above the 2012 weekly average.[5] This spike in attacks occurred during Ramadan, a trend that has persisted yearly. Nevertheless, the violence levels recorded this year exceeded those seen during Ramadan in 2010 and 2011.  While it is not yet known if violence will subside after Ramadan, this recent trend should be evaluated. 

According to data compiled from Iraqi and western news reports, attacks between July 15 2012 and August 15 2012 were concentrated in northern and central Iraq, particularly in Ninewa, Kirkuk, Diyala, and Baghdad provinces. There are a number of factors likely contributing to the rise in violence in these areas, including growing Sunni disenchantment with the central government, spillover from the Syrian conflict, and rising Arab-Kurd tensions along disputed internal boundaries. Ninewa province, in particular, has historically sustained a high level of violence, owing largely to the ethnosectarian tensions, tribal dynamics, and the porous border with Syria.

Increase in high-profile attacks by Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)

The areas that have seen increased violence are also areas in which attacks by al-Qaeda in Iraq were concentrated after 2008. The pace of major AQI-linked attacks has accelerated in the last twelve months, suggesting that AQI retains the ability to operate in Iraq and conduct major attacks across northern and central Iraq. In the second half of 2011, significant and coordinated bombings by the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), a group linked to AQI, occurred roughly every 6 to 8 weeks. In 2012, the ISI conducted 9 high-profile bomb attacks from January to mid-June.[6] In recent days, the group claimed responsibility for 28 attacks between mid-June and the end of July.[7] These attacks ranged from assassinations to major coordinated bombings that have killed hundreds. The AQI front group claimed that the violence was part of a campaign named “Destroying the Walls,” which the group claims is an effort to retake lost ground.[8]

In addition to these large-scale incidents, attacks against current and former Sons of Iraq as well as Iraqi government and security officials have increased in former AQI strongholds. This includes areas such the “Triangle of Death” in northern Babil province, just south of Baghdad; Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad; southern Diyala province; the city of Mosul; and along the Tigris river valley between Mosul and Baghdad. AQI activity in these former strongholds suggests that the group may have reactivated old cells or is forming new ones in historic operating areas.

AQI attacks and statements have strong sectarian themes, their rhetoric emphasizing anti-Shi’ite and anti-Iranian messages. The targets of many high-profile attacks are Shi’a civilians as well as Iraqi security and government officials. AQI likely is spurred at least in part by Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s accumulation of power and emboldened by the protracted political wrangling that developed as U.S. forces withdrew, which has distracted Iraq’s political class from addressing security concerns. The Syrian crisis, which provides cover for the infiltration of jihadists into Iraq, and Iraqi Security Forces’ diminished intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorist capacities as a result of reduced U.S. support are also likely contributing factors.[9] The marginalization of Iraq’s Sunni population, who feel that they are targets of a crackdown by the Maliki government, and frustration at the political standstill may also discourage Sunnis from cooperating with security forces, allowing Sunni insurgent groups greater freedom of movement inside Iraq.

For an analysis of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s role in Iraq’s political crisis, read Stephen Wicken’s backgrounder, “Sadr’s Balancing Act.” For a detailed look at Iranian influence in Iraq and the region, see “Iranian Influence in the Levant, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan.” To learn about the evolving relationship between Kurdistan and the United States, read Ramzy Mardini's backgrounder, "Relations with Iraq's Kurds: Toward a Working Partnership."

[1] Open source and official figures have traditionally under-reported low-profile violent incidents across Iraq such as kidnapping, murder, and violent intimidation. This complicates the analysis of security trends in Iraq, particularly determining an accurate picture of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence. Levels of violence may be higher in places where the presence of Iraqi Security Forces is limited or where the population is more vulnerable to insurgent intimidation.

[2] “Iraq Sees Deadliest Month in Two Years,” BBC News, August 1, 2012.

[3] “Iraq Sees Deadliest Month in Two Years,” BBC News, August 1, 2012.

[4] Gary Sandiford, Olive Group Weekly Security Update, Iraq-Business News, August 15, 2012.

[5] Gary Sandiford, Olive Group Weekly Security Update, Iraq-Business News, August 15, 2012.

[6] “Iraq's Al Qaeda claims 2 deadly attacks on Shiites,” Associated Press, February 6, 2012; Lara Jakes, “Al-Qaida in Iraq Warns of Looming War With Shiites,” Associated Press, February 24, 2012; “Islamists claim Iraq attack that killed 27” Reuters, March 16, 2012; “Iraqi Al Qaeda claims bombs targeting summit security,” Reuters, March 21, 2012; “Iraqi al Qaeda claims country-wide bombing attacks,” Reuters, April 20, 2012; “Two bombings in Iraq kill four victims,” Associated Press, May 14, 2012; “Six blasts across Baghdad kill at least 17,” Reuters, May 31, 2012; “Six killed, 38 wounded in Iraq mortar attack,” Reuters, June 10, 2012; “Iraq’s al Qaeda claims attacks on Shi’ite pilgrims,” Reuters, June 16, 2012; “26 die as last day of Iraq pilgrimage hit by bombs,” Associated Press, June 16, 2012.

[7] “Al-Qaeda Front Group Claims Dozens of Iraq Attacks,” Agence France Presse, August 13, 2012. 

[8] “Al Qaeda claims responsibility for attacks in Iraq,” Reuters, July 25, 2012.

[9] While some analysts have argued that the sophistication of some attacks on government officials, carried out with silenced weapons, demonstrate a level of operational planning that points to inter-factional political violence, a recently released AQI video documenting the March attack on police checkpoints in Haditha in Anbar province show militants conducting training, rehearsing attacks on targets, and using sophisticated methods of disguise and communication. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, “Looking at violence in Iraq,” The Jerusalem Post, August 22, 2012; Hayder al-Khoei, “Al-Qaida’s surge spells further turmoil for Iraq,” The Guardian, August 21, 2012

Past Updates

Iraq Update #33- August 3-August 15, 2012: Baghdad’s Tensions with Irbil and Ankara Diminish

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 32- July 27-August 3, 2012

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 31- Al-Qaeda Leader Claims Credit for Deadly Attacks

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 30- July 16-July 20, 2012: Rebels Take Over Syrian Border Checkpoints

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 29- July 6-July 16, 2012: White House Says Daqduq Issue Not Closed

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 28- June 29-July 6, 2012: Sadrists Back Down

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 27- June 16-June 22, 2012: Maliki Requests U.S. To Stop Exxon Operations

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 26- June 9-June 15, 2012: Sadr Returns To Najaf, Speaks With Maliki

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 25- June 1-June 8, 2012: Sadr Goes To Iran, Pressure Likely To Increase

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 24- May 25-June 1, 2012: The Numbers Game

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 23- Efforts To Remove Maliki Intensify

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 22- May 22-May 18, 2012:Hashemi Trial Begins

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 21- May 4-May 11, 2012: Daqduq Case Dismissed

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 20- April 27-May 4, 2012: Ultimatum Issued To Maliki

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 19- April 20-April 27, 2012: Maliki Visits Tehran

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 18- April 14- April 20, 2012: Iraqiyya, Kurds Consider Vote to Unseat Maliki

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 17- Members Appointed To Human Rights Commission

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 16- March 30- April 5, 2012: KRG President Massoud Barzani Visits Washington

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 15- March 23- March 30, 2012: Baghdad Hosts Arab League Summit

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 14- March 15-March 23, 2012: Barzani Disparages Maliki

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 13- March 8- Maliki Visits Kuwait, Emir to Attend Arab Summit

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis,  Update 12- March 6- Diyala Appoints New Governor

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 11- Diyala Governor Reportedly Resigns

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 10- Judiciary Sets Hashemi’s Court Date

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 9- Investigation Escalates Hashemi Case

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 8- Iraqiyya Ends Boycott of Council of Ministers

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 7- Iraqiyya Returns to Parliament

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 6- Iraqiyya Contemplates Next Move

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 5- January 13- Iraqiyya Continues Boycott

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 4- December 30- January 13, 2012: Kurds Walk Out of Parliament Session in Protest

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 3- December 23- December 30, 2011: Tensions Increase between Maliki and Sadrists

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 2- December 19- December 23, 2011: Crisis escalates in Iraqi Media

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 1- December 19, 2011: Timeline of political crisis