Spate of Iraqi violence stirs concerns on Syria

Spillover feared as attacks kill 95 around nation

Baghdad was particularly hit hard Monday, with ten car bombs, including one in an eastern area, targeting Shi’ite shops.
Hadi Mizban/Associated Press
Baghdad was particularly hit hard Monday, with ten car bombs, including one in an eastern area, targeting Shi’ite shops.

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s wave of bloodshed sharply intensified Monday with more than a dozen car bombings across the country, part of attacks that killed at least 95 people and brought echoes of past sectarian carnage and fears of a dangerous spillover from Syria’s civil war next door.

The latest spiral of violence — which has killed more than 240 in the past week — carries the hallmarks of the two sides that brought nearly nonstop chaos to Iraq for years: Sunni insurgents, including Al Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, and Shi’ite militias defending their newfound power after Saddam Hussein’s fall.

But the widening shadow and regional brinksmanship from Syria’s conflict increasingly threaten to feed into Iraq’s sectarian strife, heightening concerns that Iraq could be turning toward civil war.


The Shi’ite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must balance its close ties with Iran — the main regional ally of Syria’s Bashar Assad — and its position among fellow Arab League members and neighboring Turkey, which strongly back Syria’s mainly Sunni opposition.

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Maliki appears determined to boost security crackdowns to keep Iraq’s minority Sunnis from taking a more high-profile role in the anti-Assad forces, which have received pledges of support from the longtime insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq.

There have been no claims of responsibility for the current flare-up of violence, capped by Monday’s body count that was the highest death toll for a single day in 10 months. Yet some analysts believe it is difficult to separate Iraq’s deep sectarian suspicions from the Shi’ite-Sunni split over Assad, which has also led to clashes in Lebanon.

‘‘Iraq now has moved into a bigger circle that covers Syria and Lebanon,’’ said Hadi Jalo, a Baghdad-based political affairs analyst.

According to Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Maliki’s worries extend to Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, which has close links to Assad foe Turkey.


‘‘Maliki believes this is the time to be tough and show he is in control of the country,’’ said Clawson. ‘‘What we are seeing is the backlash to that.’’

The United States and its Western allies strongly support Syria’s political opposition but have been reluctant to significantly boost weapons flow to rebel fighters because of worries over Islamic militants who have joined the anti-Assad brigades. But the deepening refugee crisis in the region, along with concern over spillover violence, is cited by Arab states and Turkey, who are urging greater Western intervention.

Sectarian tensions have been worsening since Iraq’s minority Sunnis began expanding protests over what they say is mistreatment at the hands of the Shi’ite-led government.

Many Sunnis contend that much of the country’s current turmoil is rooted in the policies of Maliki’s government, which they accuse of feeding sectarian tension by becoming more aggressive toward Sunnis after the US military withdrawal in December 2011.

Mass demonstrations by Sunnis, which began in December, have largely been peaceful. However, the number of attacks rose sharply after a deadly security crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in northern Iraq on April 23.


Hours after Monday’s blitz of attacks — stretching from north of Baghdad to the southern city of Basra — Maliki accused militant groups of trying to exploit Iraq’s political instability and vowed to resist attempts to ‘‘bring back the atmosphere of the sectarian war.’’

He also blamed the spike in violence on the wider unrest in the region, particularly Syria.

‘‘You cannot remove the Syrian element from what’s happening in Iraq,’’ said Sami al-Faraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. ‘‘The outcome of the war in Syria has big consequences for both Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’ites. What we see now is an extension of that in some respects.’’

The worst of Monday’s violence took place in Baghdad, where 10 car bombs ripped through open-air markets and other areas of Shi’ite neighborhoods, killing at least 48 people and wounding more than 150, police officials said.

In Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, a car bomb exploded next to a bus carrying Iranian pilgrims, killing 13 Iranians and one Iraqi, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, in the predominantly Shi’ite city of Basra in southern Iraq, twin car bombings — outside a restaurant and at the city’s main bus station — killed at least 13 people and wounded 40, according to provincial police spokesman Colonel Abdul-Karim al-Zaidi and the head of the city’s health directorate, Riadh Abdul-Amir.

Monday’s violence also struck Sunni areas.

A car bomb in Samarra, north of Baghdad, went off near a gathering of pro-government Sunni militia waiting outside a military base to receive salaries, killing three and wounding 13. In the western province of Anbar, the hub of Sunni power, gunmen ambushed two police patrols near the town of Haditha, killing eight policemen.