Among 50 targeted killings last month, most were carried out by gunmen using silenced weapons, according to Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which oversees the country’s police forces.
Assassinations are not an entirely new feature of Iraq’s political landscape. But a stealthy string of killings that began last month has given them new prominence, shaking Iraqis’ confidence in their government’s ability to protect them and raising questions about the country’s security just months before the last U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw.
In recent days, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and members of parliament have felt compelled to address the killings repeatedly in public, vowing all-out efforts to stop them.
But the killings have continued with at least 14 more dead from gun attacks and targeted bombings, mostly against police officials, in the first three days of May. Late Tuesday, a car bomb killed at least 15 people and wounded more than 30 in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad.
Iraqi intelligence officials and U.S. military officers say the killings are being waged from both ends of Iraq’s religious and political spectrum, as part of renewed jockeying for power in advance of the American pullout.
According to Iraqi officials, Sunni extremists, including the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq and former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, who still consider Iraq’s elected government illegitimate, are behind most of the recent slayings. But they say Shiite Muslim militias, some with close ties to Iran, also appear to be conducting some of the killings to assert influence and settle scores.
Ali al-Dabbagh, Iraq’s chief government spokesman, said there was no evidence that Shiite militias are behind the assassinations. But he acknowledged that the sheer number of killings of high-placed government officials has become a serious problem. “This is a new way of terrorism here in Iraq,” Dabbagh said. “This is a big threat for the whole process, the whole government.”
Assassinations accounted for roughly 20 percent of about 251 violent deaths in Iraq last month. The death toll is orders of magnitude smaller than what Iraq endured during the height of the country’s sectarian bloodshed in 2006 and 2007,
when more than 2,000 Iraqis died in violent attacks each month. Iraq’s overall homicide rate is now lower than in most American cities.
Calling the tactic “sick,” Ad Melkert, the United Nations special representative in Iraq, said he alerted the Security Council last year to the increasing frequency of assassinations. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the senior U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said the country’s security forces recorded an average of 20 assassinations in recent months and just more than 30 in March. Buchanan said that was more than the United States would classify strictly as assassinations but called the trend “worthy of concern” even before April’s spike more than doubled the recent average.