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Why Is Violence Ramping Up In Iraq?


Across Syria's eastern border, Iraq is nearing the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led international invasion. The war that ended the repressive regime of Saddam Hussein is over but the killing is not. Insurgence sprang up under U.S. occupation, and sectarian and ethnic rifts left thousands dead. Though the bloodshed peaked about six years ago, the death toll there is still stunning. Last month across the country it reached 246. And we're learning this morning about more violence in Iraq.

We're joined now by Jane Arraf, a reporter for Al-Jazeera English and the Christian Science Monitor. She's based in Baghdad.

Welcome to the program.

JANE ARRAF: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, just yesterday there was a bombing - and it certainly caught our attention - in a town outside of Baghdad - 22 people killed, apparently members of a Sunni militia. What is going on there?

ARRAF: Well, those are the Sahwa; they're called the Awakening, and those are the people that actually led to al-Qaida being really considerably weakened here. You'll recall they're the people who also teamed up with U.S. forces when they were here and turned their back on al-Qaida. Now that the U.S. has left, they're being killed. They've been largely abandoned by the government here; they struggle to get paid, but you still go out to the towns and you see them with rifles. They're guarding their cities, their towns, and they're frequently getting attacked, as in yesterday.

MONTAGNE: Well, Sunnis are not the only people getting attacked and dying there. What is going on? The violence there seems to be getting worse.

ARRAF: It does. It does. In Kirkuk this week also, there was another suicide bombing, a very dramatic one. That was actually a group which involved suicide car bombs, gunmen, trying to free prisoners from one of the prisons. And the analysis of that in Kirkuk is that essentially this was a sign that al-Qaida is back again.

Now, the Iraqi government, when you talk to them, blames the increase in attacks on other countries, on Ba'athists. When you talk to people like the governor of Kirkuk, for instance, they blame it on Baghdad. They say there's no coordination left between intelligence services or the Iraqi army or any of the police forces that are trying to fight organizations like al-Qaida.

So they say that those increases in attacks are a direct result of the fact that there is political turmoil and there's a lot of tension here between Baghdad and pretty much every other province in the country.

MONTAGNE: And just a moment ago, when you say Ba'athists, that of course was the party of Saddam Hussein, mostly secular party, and those Ba'athists would be, what, sympathizers of his?

ARRAF: If we're talking about Ba'athists in the way that the Iraqi government talks about them, Ba'athist is a very wide term, and that's part of the big problem here. The Ba'athists, the hardcore Ba'athists, that the government refers to are actually loyalists to the executed dictator, Saddam Hussein, but it's become more than that.

And al-Qaida also has become more than that. They've launched alliances with other groups that surprise a lot of people. But as in anything to do here with security and intelligence, it is really hard to disentangle fact from disinformation and wishful thinking.

MONTAGNE: There have also been political protests in recent weeks against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He came out recently saying that he's not facing a revolt the way we've seen in other Arab countries, but does it feel like all of this is leading to something bigger?

ARRAF: Iraq, the one thing you could say about it safely is it has a remarkable ability to withstand crisis and chaos. And that is what we're seeing. I think what's different now is all of the political tension that we've seen for a long time is now married with unrest on the ground and weaknesses, undisputed weakness, with security forces, particularly intelligence forces.

That's the kind of fertile ground that groups like al-Qaida take advantage of, and we're seeing a lot more, not just suicide bombings, but also a lot more targeted assassinations that really go to the heart of the criminal justice system and of security forces. So you put that on top of the fact that political parties, even Maliki's own parties, his own coalition partners, have been trying to get rid of him for more than a year, it all comes together in even more tension here than is normal. And that's really saying quite a lot.

MONTAGNE: Jane, thanks very much.

ARRAF: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Jane Arraf was speaking to us from Baghdad, where she's based as a reporter with Al-Jazeera English and the Christian Science Monitor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.