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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 13 November 2018

Fears of fresh outbreak of sectarian violence grip Iraq

At least 19 people were killed in a string of attacks yesterday, with Iraq still reeling from a massacre of Shi'ite pilgrims that dramatically increased sectarian tensions.
Iraqis mourn slain Shiite pilgrims during a funeral in Karbala, 80 kilometers  south of Baghdad. Gunmen killed 22 Shiite Muslim pilgrims on their way to Syria as they were passing through a predominantly Sunni Iraqi province from the shrine city of Karbala. MOHAMMED SAWAF / AFP PHOTO
Iraqis mourn slain Shiite pilgrims during a funeral in Karbala, 80 kilometers south of Baghdad. Gunmen killed 22 Shiite Muslim pilgrims on their way to Syria as they were passing through a predominantly Sunni Iraqi province from the shrine city of Karbala. MOHAMMED SAWAF / AFP PHOTO

BAGHDAD // A string of attacks on Iraqi security forces killed at least 19 people yesterday, with the country still reeling from a bus massacre earlier in the week that dramatically increased sectarian tensions.

In the worst of yesterday's assaults, a car bomb exploded outside restaurant in Babil province, 90 kilometres south of Baghdad, during the breakfast rush hour, killing 15 and wounded 41 others, police officers and civilians.

Two other morning attacks - a drive-by shooting in the capital and a magnetic bomb attached to a minibus carrying soldiers in Anbar province - claimed another four lives and caused serious injuries to more than a dozen people.

But Iraq's horrified attention remained focused on an atrocity that occurred on Monday night, also in Anbar province, the Sunni tribal zone in the country's western desert region.

In that incident, 22 Shiite pilgrims en route to Syria were killed by gunmen who had stopped their bus at a fake police checkpoint. The militants calmly separated the women and children passengers, taking only the men, who were then all shot repeatedly in the head and chest.

Such killings were commonplace in Anbar province during the height of Iraq's civil war, from 2006 to 2008, when any Shiite daring to cross the Sunni stronghold of Anbar risked death at the hands of Al Qaeda-inspired militants.

With the nation hoping those dark and bloody days were now behind it, Monday's attack served as a stark reminder that violent sectarianism is still a present danger.

"This has revived the sectarian feelings that we saw emerge in 2006," said Othman Al Jehaysi, an MP with the nationalist Iraqiyya bloc. "We need to take serious action to deal with this as soon as possible otherwise we will find ourselves heading towards serious sectarian problems, just as the Americans are pulling out."

US troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of the year. Washington and Baghdad are talking about a possible extension that could see tens of thousands of US soldiers remain in a training role but, even if that happens, Iraqi forces will have to shoulder greater responsibility for security.

Yesterday's deadly attacks showed that Iraqi soldiers and police are highly vulnerable to militants, while Monday's bus murders underlined that civilians, too, remain firmly in the firing line.

While the monthly death tolls in Iraq have dropped in recent years, the country remains highly dangerous and US officials have warned that attacks appear to be creeping upwards again. In August, 239 people were killed in violent incidents, with more than 1,800 killed since the start of the year.

"This is a clear attempt to reignite a sectarian conflict in Iraq," said Mohammad Al Musawi, the head of Kerbala provincial council.

The murdered pilgrims were all travelling from Kerbala, the spiritual centre of Iraq's Shiite majority. Kerbala shares a long border with Anbar province.

Beyond the killings themselves, the location of the murders also appeared designed by the perpetrators with sectarian discord in mind. They set up their fake checkpoint in Nukhaib, some 200km west of Kerbala city, an obscure but highly sensitive town.

Nukhaib is an oil and gas rich area that is currently part of the Anbar province. Before the 1940s it was, however, under the administrative control of Kerbala and provincial officials there have since been trying to win it back - placing it at the centre of a Sunni and Shiite tug-of-war.

"The terrorists want to make a problem between Anbar and Kerbala," said Mr Musawi. "They understand this town is sensitive and they want to ignite something there, it's a critical time, it's a critical place that could reactivate sectarian rifts."

Monday's deaths have led to increased calls from Kerbala to bring Nukhaib back under its control, with officials and residents saying their security forces would be able to prevent such attacks.

Kerbala's political leadership have also said they will send locally controlled security terms to escort pilgrims through Anbar in future, underlining their lack of trust in Anbar's own locally recruited security units.

A security officer in Anbar involved in the investigation of Monday's bus attack said he shared the Kerbala officials' worries about the situation in the Sunni-dominated province.

"Security forces in Anbar have been getting weaker and weaker over the last few months, Al Qaeda has broken security lines," he said. "In every report we sent to the interior ministry in Baghdad we tell them Al Qaeda is seducing police and security forces over to its side but the ministry doesn't do anything about it."

The officer also said that Sunni tribes in Anbar viewed the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad, led by the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, as narrowly sectarian.

"There is building frustration in Anbar about what they see as Shiite control, with government money and support directed at Shiite areas, not Sunni areas," he said. "The Sunni provinces feel they are being neglected and that is making more people [in Anbar] cooperate with al Qa'eda again."

Sunni tribes were allied with Al Qaeda until 2007 when the so-called tribal awakening saw them switch sides, joining with US forces to rout the militants.

nlatif@thenational.ae