Valdosta Daily Times

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August 31, 2013

Street killings underscore Iraq’s rising unrest

BAGHDAD — The mob strung up the suspected terrorist’s shirtless body by the feet and set it ablaze on a street on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, a tire placed underneath to fuel the flames. In grainy footage of the immolation this week, police appeared to do little to stop the vigilantes’ street justice.

In another video issued in recent days, jihadi militants who took over a major highway in western Iraq stop three Syrian truck drivers, interrogate them, then gun them down, believing them to be members of the Alawite sect.

The two incidents, confirmed by police, illustrate in stark terms the increasing brutality of the unrest gripping Iraq, fueling complaints that security forces are unable to contain it.

Violence inside Iraq has accelerated in recent months to levels not seen since 2008, with more than 4,000 people killed since the start of April. The growing unrest — marked by frequent coordinated car bombings and other attacks blamed mostly on al-Qaida’s local branch targeting police, the military and often Shiite Muslim areas — is intensifying fears Iraq is heading back toward the widespread Sunni-Shiite sectarian killing that peaked in 2006 and 2007.

Yet another barrage of al-Qaida-claimed explosions struck in and around Baghdad on Wednesday, when attacks killed at least 82 and wounded more than 200.

The mob’s immolation of a man believed to be a bomber in Baghdad on that day suggests that at least some Iraqis have had enough and are starting to take matters into their own hands.

In grainy footage taken by cell phone and posted online, dozens of people can be seen watching the man’s body burn, many of them filming it with mobile phones. They far outnumber the police, who appear to be trying to control the crowd but do nothing to stop the burning itself.

Saad Maan Ibrahim, an Interior Ministry spokesman, confirmed that the incident shown in the video happened Wednesday in Jisr Diyala, a largely Shiite area on the edges of Baghdad. Authorities previously told The Associated Press that two parked car bombs struck the neighborhood that morning, killing eight and wounding nearly two dozen.

Two police officials said the man in the video was seen getting out of a car that later exploded. One bomb had already gone off, and onlookers grew suspicious when he parked his car and then ran away after being spotted, one of the officers said. An angry mob caught up with him beat him to death, then set his body alight, they said. The two officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.

Ibrahim said an investigation into the incident is underway, but had no answer why police appeared to allow the burning to continue. “But for sure we reject such acts,” he said.

Iraqis, regardless of their sectarian background, are weary of the terrorist attacks that have battered the country in the since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

While some who have seen the video recoiled at the desecration, many seemed willing to accept the crowd’s judgment that the man was a militant getting his due after a decade of bloodshed in the country.

“That guy got a fair punishment, except it’s maybe 10 times less than what he deserved,” said Hassan Sabih, a 28-year old Shiite who owns an Internet cafe in Baghdad. He said he hoped the video would deter would-be terrorists. “The security forces aren’t able to protect the people,” Sabih said.

Ammar Ahmed, a 34-year old Sunni baker, had a similar reaction.

“I don’t agree with the way they handled it, but I can’t blame them,” he said. “People don’t trust the security forces and the government anymore.”

The security forces’ credibility took a sharp hit in July when al-Qaida carried out highly coordinated, military-style assaults on two prisons near Baghdad, including the infamous Abu Ghraib. Those raids set free more than 500 inmates, many of them members of the terrorist group. An Interpol alert warned that the escapes posed “a major threat to global security.”

In another show of Iraq’s increasing lawlessness, al-Qaida-linked militants released a propaganda video online showing their fighters in control of a major desert highway in the western part of the country.

In the video, a thick-bearded gunman flags down passing trucks and quizzes three Syrian drivers as several other armed militants line the highway. The drivers insist they are Sunni Muslims, so the gunman questions them on how to pray — since there are slight differences between how Sunnis and Shiites perform daily prayers. Subtitles on the video claim the men are Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Syrian President Bashar Assad belongs.

After the men fail to give the right answers, they are led to the middle of the highway and shot dead in the back as the militants shout “God is great.” The killers encountered no resistance during the ambush, which lasted for several minutes.

The video appeared to depict an incident previously reported by police in which three Syrian drivers were killed near the remote western town of Rutba on June 2, along the main highway linking Iraq with Jordan and Syria.

After the video appeared on local TV this week, the Interior Ministry said in a statement that it has since tightened security along the highway by deploying additional police.

Ibrahim, the ministry spokesman, insisted his forces were capable of securing the country despite an increased terrorist threat he blamed on the instability caused by the civil war in neighboring Syria.

“The security forces are developing their skills despite attempts by militant groups to prove they remain active on the ground,” he said.

Iraqi officials complain, however, that they lack adequate air power to go after militants. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said during a visit to Washington this month that Baghdad is seeking greater U.S. help to confront terrorist threats.

American and other Western officials, meanwhile, are growing increasingly concerned about rising insecurity inside Iraq. Attacks like those on the Syrian truckers only reinforce those fears.

“The attack suggests (al-Qaida) has more influence or control in areas of Iraq than the government would freely admit,” said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center.

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