BAGHDAD — The United Nations’ mission to Iraq said Saturday that more than 1,000 people were killed in violence across the country last month — the highest monthly death toll in years.
Violence in Iraq increased sharply in April and May, with bombings in civilian areas growing more frequent and escalating fears that widespread sectarian conflict may again break out in the country. The bloodshed accelerated after a deadly April 23 crackdown by security forces on a Sunni protest in the northern town of Hawijah.
The U.N. figures showed that 1,045 civilians and security personnel were killed in May. That surpassed the 712 killed in April, the deadliest month recorded since June 2008.
U.N. envoy Martin Kobler called the figures “a sad record.”
“Iraqi political leaders must act immediately to stop this intolerable bloodshed,” he said in a statement.
More than half of those killed were in the greater Baghdad area. Car bombs and other explosives were responsible for the bulk of the casualties across the country.
Hours after the casualty figures were released, Iraq’s Defense Ministry announced that it had broken up an alleged al-Qaeda cell that had been attempting to produce chemical weapons.
The ministry’s spokesman, Mohammed al-Askari, told reporters that the cell members conducted experiments and set up labs with the intent of producing chemical agents, including sarin and mustard gas.
Askari said that the cell members had managed to acquire some raw materials and formulas but that they had not produced any active chemical weapons. It was unclear how far along they were in their efforts.
Reporters were shown four of the alleged suspects, who were hooded, and a table displaying beakers and jars of chemical compounds. At one point, soldiers wearing gas masks and gloves brought out containers containing alleged chemical ingredients. Neither Askari nor the reporters at the news conference were given any protective gear.
On Friday, authorities imposed a sweeping ban on temporary license plates for cars across Baghdad in an apparent effort to thwart car bombings. The temporary black plates are common in postwar Iraq, where for years it was difficult to obtain new ones. They are typically on older-model vehicles and are more difficult to trace, and authorities say they are frequently used in car bombings.
Many roads were also closed throughout Baghdad on Saturday.