Violence In Iraq Goes From Bad To Worse

There have been a wave of deadly attacks across Iraq over the last several days. For more on this surge of violence, Steve Inskeep talks to Prashant Rao, Iraq bureau chief for the French news agency AFP.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The violence in Iraq is getting even worse. To recap here, the ongoing Syrian civil war next door created lawless areas where Muslim extremists - Sunni Muslim extremists - from both countries could operate and find safe havens, which helped fuel a wave of hundreds of bombings in Iraq.

Let's talk a little bit more about what's going on there. We're joined from Baghdad now by Prashant Rao of the French Press Agency or AFP. Welcome back to the program.

PRASHANT RAO: Hi.

INSKEEP: I want to understand what's happening here. There's been a series of bombings just in the last day or so and the government seems to be responding with airstrikes. Is it really that intense?

RAO: Well, the reports conflict in terms of how exactly the government is responding. But you're right to say that there have been numerous bombings. I mean we at AFP have confirmed that at least 25 car bombs in the past week in only Baghdad. I mean there have been several other bombings north of the capital and cities such as Tikrit, Kirkuk, Mosul, Tuz Khurmatu.

In terms of how the government is responding though, it varies depending on the area. In Baghdad, they have locked out a lot of areas. They've sort of increased checkpoints and they've sort of tighten those checkpoints. But in Anbar, the response have been a combination of the deploying of U.S.- supplied Hellfire missiles and also clashes in some towns in between Ramadi and Fallujah, where the Iraqi army and Iraqi police, allied tribal fighters are all looking to take back territory that the government lost about three weeks ago.

INSKEEP: Let's remember here Anbar. Of course, that's the Sunni-dominated province west of Baghdad. You're saying that's where some of the heaviest fighting is taking place. So is this sectarian violence Sunni versus Shia?

RAO: Well, it might be slightly over-generalizing it to say it's sectarian. But there is a perception of sectarianism, in that the Iraqis security forces are perceived in Sunni areas to be a Shia force, especially some of the more elite fighting units. And, of course, Anbar, as you say, is a predominantly Sunni province - so it takes on that color. That is certainly part of the perception.

INSKEEP: Here's another thing that I'm wondering. You mentioned 25 car bombs in a very short period in Baghdad alone. That causes me to wonder are there multiple groups that are lashing out at the same time. Or is there some coordinated offensive going on here that's directed by a single hand or a few hands?

RAO: It's probably a little bit of both. If you talk to analysts that (unintelligible) Iraqi security officials, the situation in Anbar seems to be pushed by multiple different fighting forces, from tribal fighters who are opposed to the Iraqi government to a large group of fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant. But there also other sort of old insurgent groups, like the 1920 Revolutionary Brigade; fighting groups like that that have reemerged after sort of long periods of being dormant.

But when it comes to Baghdad, the kind of attacks that have been carried out in Baghdad are typically the hallmark of the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, in that they were coordinated. There was use of car bombs in multiple areas within a short period of time. All of the sort of three waves of attacks in Baghdad in the past week have seen at least a half-dozen car bombs in multiple different neighborhoods, mostly targeting civilians. And that's sort of the calling card, is typically attributed to ISIL or ISIS.

INSKEEP: And will just remind people Islamic State of Iraq, that's a name for this umbrella group of a variety of militants organizations linked in some way with al-Qaida.

Can I just ask, Preschant Rao, how are casualties so far this year - how many deaths have there been in Iraq so far in this New Year compared to the year before?

RAO: Well, we keep a tab on how many we can track. And all of these are sort of independently double-sourced or to a credible single source who we can name. And so far, less than three weeks of January, we've had 691 people killed, at least, and nearly a thousand others wounded. The U.N. and the Iraqi government will release their own figures at the end of the month.

But in terms of how that compares to previous years, in January of last year there were about 250 people who were killed. So we're already more than double of that and we're not even close to finishing January yet.

INSKEEP: So way ahead of the pace of what was a very deadly year.

RAO: That's right. I mean last year gradually became more and more violent. But if you just compare month to month, the toll this month in January of 2014 is more than two times higher than January 2013.

INSKEEP: Prashant Rao of AFP is in Baghdad. Thanks very much.

RAO: Thank you.

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