BAGHDAD: Iraq’s wave of bloodshed sharply escalated 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 claimed more than 240 lives in the past week — carries the hallmarks of the two sides that brought nearly nonstop chaos to Iraq for years: Sunni insurgents, including al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, and Shiite militias defending their newfound power after Saddam Hussein’s fall.
But the widening shadow and regional brinksmanship from Syria’s conflict now increasingly threaten to feed into Iraq’s sectarian strife, heightening concerns that Iraq could be turning toward civil war.
The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki must balance its close ties with Iran — the main regional ally of Syria’sBashar Assad — and its position among fellow Arab League members and neighboring Turkey, which strongly back Syria’s mainly Sunni opposition.
Al-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-Qaida 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’s difficult to separate Iraq’s deep sectarian suspicions from the Shiite-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 Baghdad-based political affairs analyst Hadi Jalo.
Al-Maliki is not only worried about his Sunni rivals possibly deepening their involvement in the rebel cause in Syria, said Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Al-Maliki’s worries extend to Iraq’s semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, which has close links to Assad foe Turkey.
“Al-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 U.S. 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 often cited by Arab states and Turkey 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 Shiite-led government. Many Sunnis contend that much of the country’s current turmoil is rooted in the policies of al-Maliki’s government, which they accuse of feeding sectarian tension by becoming more aggressive toward Sunnis after the U.S. 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 stunning blitz of attacks — stretching from north of Baghdad to the southern city of Basra — al-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.”