x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Shootings rise in run-up to election

In the first of The National's special reports on next week's Iraqi poll, we examine the increasing number of deaths in Baghdad. Whether these gunmen are criminally or politically motivated, it appears they do not want candidates out on the streets.

BAGHDAD // There are signs security in Baghdad has been quietly deteriorating before next week's election, with a string of recent shootings adding to an increasingly tense atmosphere in the Iraqi capital.

With seven days to go before the critical national vote, levels of violence, much of which goes unreported in the media, may have risen significantly. According to an official at a leading Baghdad hospital, 67 victims of gunshot wounds were taken for treatment inside a 24-hour period on Thursday. Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media, he said the number of shooting cases handled at al Kindi hospital had begun to rise at the end of last month.

"We saw the numbers of people with gunshot wounds going up three weeks ago," he said. "We started getting 10 to 20 a day. There have been more increases since then, and Thursday was the highest, we had 67 in. "Some had been shot using silenced weapons, which is what happens with assassinations. This is new. Outside of the bombings, I've not seen anything on this scale since the sectarian war in 2007."

Unlike bombings, which cause mass casualties and which are impossible to ignore, shootings tend to slip by under the radar, unnoticed except by the victims' families and the workers with the grim job of dealing with the corpses. The majority of those shot died from their wounds long before reaching the emergency treatment room, the hospital official said. "The people we're seeing are shot multiple times in the body, or once in the head: they don't survive that," he said.

No government statistics for violence have yet been released for February and the figures from al Kindi could not be independently verified. Security in Iraq of late is generally seen through the prism of improvements since the bloody days of 2006 and 2007, in comparison to which almost any level of violence seems low. There has not yet been any single major breach of security this month, such as the bombings that hit the capital in August and October, killing hundreds at a time. Last month a series of co-ordinated car bombs damaged three Baghdad hotels popular with westerners.

Security firms working in Baghdad have of late been issuing more cautious travel advice in the run-up to the elections, and a number of candidates say they have been forced to cut back on campaigning. "There have been assassinations of people involved in the election campaign, we've seen it in Mosul, Tikrit and Baghdad," said Mahdi Yunis Ayal, a candidate running under the Iraqiyya list, the main secular bloc, headed by Ayad Allawi.

A female Iraqiyya candidate, Suha Abdul Jarallah, was killed in Mosul at the start of the month, shot dead as she left a relative's home. Mosul, 390km north of Baghdad, remains a fearfully violent city, with shootings and bombings an almost everyday occurrence. "I've certainly had to increase my own security precautions in the last weeks and I'm being more careful in my campaigning than I thought I'd have to be," Mr Ayal said. "I've been unable to campaign in some of the neighbourhoods I wanted to visit, especially in Sadr City. Instead I've been restricted to safer areas of east Baghdad."

It remains unclear how much of the violence is criminal and how much might be directly related to politics. Mr Ayal said he was in no doubts the shootings were politically motivated. "Those behind the killings don't want the candidates out on the streets putting their message out to the people," he said. "They are trying to stop the campaign to bring a positive change to Iraq." Other candidates had similar stories, saying they had been downgrading campaign plans on the advice of security officers and had been spending money allocated for their campaigns on guards.

"These shootings have been affecting all of the political parties here and, more importantly, the ordinary people," said Abdel Ila Taha, a spokesman for Tariq al Hashemi, a vice president of Iraq and one of the more prominent figures standing in the election. "Whoever is behind them doesn't want a strong Iraqi parliament." Among the Baghdad shootings that have received media coverage were Monday's murder of a mother and her three daughters, in the Hurriya district, and the same day's killing of Thamer Kamel, a university professor working in the ministry of higher education.

Two days later, on Wednesday, a female member of the independent high electoral commission was shot and wounded in south-west Baghdad. Also that day gunmen using pistols fitted with silencers shot dead a judge, Mohammed Abdul Ghafur, wounding his nine-year-old son in the process. The following day, gunmen, again using silenced weapons, killed two Iraqi guards and wounded a third at a checkpoint in east Baghdad.

Security has been one of the central election campaign issues, with the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, running on his record of combating Islamist extremists and militia groups. During the final years of his current tenure, security improved across Iraq, something Mr al Maliki's supporters say he is entitled to take credit for. His political opponents, insist security has not improved enough, and point to various events outside of the prime minister's control that contributed to reduced violence, including the Sunni tribal awakening and a US troop surge.

Al Qa'eda-inspired militants have pledged to step up attacks in the remaining days before the election. Security services, backed by US troops, have been deployed in force across the country in an effort to prevent them keeping their promise. nlatif@thenational.ae