Joel Rayburn writes: The Iraq conflict came back into view in the last week of April, when several areas of northern Iraq exploded in violence on a scale not seen since the height of the 2006-2008 civil war. The carnage began on April 23, with either a botched arrest attempt or a brutal crackdown by government troops, just three days after Iraq held largely peaceful elections for local government. In the early hours, Iraqi forces raided a campsite for Sunni anti-government protesters in the town of Hawijah, a former insurgent stronghold near Kirkuk, ostensibly seeking suspects in the murder of an Iraqi soldier a few days before. Which side shot first is still unclear, but when the gunfire stopped about twenty protesters and three Iraqi soldiers were dead, with more than 100 people wounded.
The Hawijah clash rippled across northern and central Iraq. Within hours of the raid, Sunni gunmen overran police and army outposts in neighboring towns, leaving more than fifty dead on both sides. Some of the gunmen were likely associated with the Naqshbandi Army, a potent Ba’athist-related militant group whose spokesmen angrily announced immediately after the Hawijah raid that it would return to war against the government. By April 25, the fighting spread to Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, where Sunni gunmen engaged Iraqi troops in another battle that left nearly forty more people dead. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went on national television to warn that continued “sedition” against the government would lead to a full-scale sectarian war. Despite his warning, or perhaps because of it, on April 26 the violence spread to Baghdad, where four Sunni mosques were bombed soon after noon prayers. The next day, Sunni gunmen pulled five government intelligence officers out of a car and executed them. The bloodshed culminated on April 29, when four Al Qaeda-style bombings in Shia cities south of Baghdad killed twenty-five and wounded almost seventy more, bringing the death toll for the month to more than 700, the highest since the dark days of summer 2008.
This spiral of violence is disappointing, but not surprising. For those who have been watching Iraq, it seemed bound to happen. For several months, Iraq’s Sunnis and Maliki’s Shia-led government have fought a political battle that began when Maliki’s troops attempted to arrest one of the country’s top Sunni leaders, Maliki’s own Finance Minister Rafe al-Issawi, on terrorism charges on December 20. Tens of thousands of Sunnis protested in streets in all of Iraq’s Sunni provinces, where they set up “Occupy”-style camps and carried out near-daily demonstrations. Maliki responded by deploying Shia-led army units around the most restive Sunni cities, including the unit that assaulted the protest camp in Hawijah. [Continue reading…]