The last year couldn’t end soon enough for Iraqis, who have just lived through the deadliest year since the peak of the U.S.-led war there. According to the United Nations, the death toll in Iraq reached nearly 9,000 when civilians and security forces are tallied together. In comparison, approximately 10,000 died in 2008, the bloodiest year of the Iraq War. Of the 8,868 killed last year, 759 people died in December alone.
The U.N. estimate isn’t alone in noting the increased rate and tempo of death across Iraq. Agence France Press has been keeping its own tracker for the year and believes that 6,818 Iraqis were killed in 2013. Iraq Body Count, an NGO based in the United Kingdom, put the total number of civilians killed in 2013 at 9,475 in most recent report, released on Wednesday.
While the exact numbers vary among counts, the result is the same — as are the causes. “Iraq is now a fragmented state, where each party struggles to gain power, at the expense of the others, as they have incompatible security requirements, which means that the security of each cannot be assured at the same time as the security of its rivals or enemies,” Iraq Body Count said in its report. “Thus they seek relative gains, where their own gain is a loss to another, rather than absolute gains, which require cooperation.” And so the struggle between the minority Sunnis and government-leading Shiites continued, stretching from the political arena to the streets of Iraq in violent episode after violent episode.
The deteriorating security situation is exemplified in last year’s high-profile jailbreak from the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Members of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) have taken credit for engineering the massive escape, in which hundreds of their allies were set free in a coordinated assault on the infamous detention center. AQI spent most of last year proving themselves ascendant, taking advantage of the chaos next door in Syria — and the political vacuum at home — to increase their numbers and influence, declaring themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as both ISIS and ISIL, to reflect its role in the conflict.
AQI is not the only militant group operating in Iraq, where both Sunni and Shiite militias are numerous, but it has taken credit for many of the bombings that have caused the death toll to spiral upwards throughout the course of the year. According to reports, AQI’s strength has grown to the point that it controls half of Fallujah, a western Iraqi city that saw some of the worst fighting in the Iraq War. “Half of Fallujah is in the hands of the ISIL (the Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) group and the other half is in the control of armed tribesmen,” an interior ministry official said, with witnesses reporting the militants establishing checkpoints throughout the city. ISIL felt so secure in its growth that earlier this year they blatantly defied an order from Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri to disband the Syrian portion of the organization.
The pattern of violence was evident in May, when the United Nations declared that the country had just seen its most violent month in years. Car bombings have become at least a weekly occurrence, with headlines declaring waves that kill dozens in October, scores in June, and injuring hundreds in February. While most of the attacks have been targeted against Shiite civilians, in June a Shiite militia claimed credit for an explosion that killed two members of the MEK, an Iranian dissident group in exile in Iraq. Other Shiite militias including Al-Mahdi Army, the Iraqi Hizballah Brigades, and the Asaeb Ahlul-Haq have so far refrained from countering the attacks against their fellow sect members, but stand poised to retaliate and remain outside of the control of the government.
This is all taking place amid political drama in Baghdad that has become business as usual for the country’s political class, complimenting and adding to the security vacuum. Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki saw 44 Sunni parliamentarians withdraw from government last week, following the forceful breakup of a protest camp composed of the Sunnis that represent a minority within Iraq. The Sunnis claim that Malaki and the Shiite-majority treat them as being part of a second-class citizenship, as evidenced by the degree of violence with which the camp was broken up. Malaki on the other hand has claimed that the camp was a hot-bed of recruitment for AQI and the government’s actions justified.
In response to the political backlash, Maliki originally on Tuesday ordered Iraqi army troops out of the Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold and the epicenter of the protests, only to reintroduce them into the region on Wednesday with reinforcements. The first move of the reintroduced security forces, however, was to arrest the leader of a Shiite militia, seemingly to help reclaim Sunni support for the government’s efforts.
The United States has opted to help Malaki combat the rising violence through providing more weapons to the embattled Iraqi government. Obama administration officials confirmed last week that in response to a request from Baghdad, the U.S. has provided “75 air-to-ground Hellfire missiles this month and is preparing to send ScanEagle surveillance drones” within the next few months. The New York Times’ editorial board was less than impressed, however, with this show of military support, warning that “arms alone will not solve a problem that has its roots in the political alienation of Sunnis and other minorities and the undermining of democratic processes, especially by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.”
Despite these admonishing statements, the signs that violence will decrease in 2014 are not looking good. Iraqi MP Ahmed al-Alwani, one of the leaders of the Sunni protests, remains imprisoned after Saturday’s break-up of the camp, which will continue to anger protesters and serve as emblematic of the political divides in Iraq. The political stagnation in Baghdad that has allowed such insecurity to flourish in 2013 doesn’t seem to be likely to ebb anytime soon, even as new parliamentary elections are scheduled to take place in April. And on Thursday, another car bomb exploded in Northern Iraq, killing at least 19 people.