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Violence In Iraq Mars Runup To Election


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Iraq is suffering the worst spate of violence that country has seen in many years, some say the worst since the height of the U.S. war in 2008. On Friday, dozens of people were killed at an election rally in Baghdad.

This Wednesday, Iraqis go to the polls in the first parliamentary election since the U.S. pulled combat troops out in 2011. To hear more about the upcoming election, we're joined by Reuters Baghdad Bureau Chief, Ned Parker. Welcome to the program.

NED PARKER: Thank you.

MARTIN: First off, can you just tell us what you know about the details of this attack?

PARKER: Thirty-three people died at a political rally for a hard-line Shiite group called Asaib Ahl al-Haq. The attack was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The reason for the attack was Asaib Ahl al-Haq is seen for Sunnis as a symbol of Shiite extremism. Today, Asaib Ahl al-Haq is sending the fighters to Syria to fight and defend the Shia holy shrines. So the group is provocative.

And for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant to attack it and kill 33 members or supporters of the group, it was meant to inflame the situation in Iraq before elections.

MARTIN: More than 2,500 Iraqis have been killed already this year. Is it mainly sectarian fighting?

PARKER: It is sectarian fighting, but we have to qualify it. A majority of the deaths are from bombings, most likely carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and then other groups. As well, we do have sectarian killings from the Shia side by militia groups that say they're carrying out attacks against Sunni terrorists. Those attacks are not publicized, but they have been taking place according to Shiites, as well as politicians with ties to the militia groups.

On top of that, the death toll is probably even larger because we've had a war going on in the western province of Anbar since the end of last year. There, there are no clear tolls on how many people have been killed or wounded. On top of that, half of the population of around 1.6 million people in Anbar have been displaced.

MARTIN: What's the root of the fighting? I mean, is this kind of violence a symptom of old mistrust, old issues, or are there new grievances that have emerged?

PARKER: Well, we're really seeing the Iraqis once more trying to settle age-old animosities. When I say age-old, I really mean from the time of Saddam Hussein, the damage that he inflicted amongst the Shia, the Sunni and Kurds. And all of those problems that we saw play out in '05 and '06 when there were militia killings and al-Qaida carrying out so many bombings, that's what's come back now in a new form.

MARTIN: So what does this mean for the elections that are coming up this week? Are Iraqis expecting that there will be a lot of violence?

PARKER: Iraqis are anticipating violence. What happened on Friday, the bombing at the Asaib Ahl al-Haw political rally, was really a warning, an omen of what could happen. The government has declared a week holiday for the elections and there will be a curfew. But even in 2010, the day of elections, there were bombs all over Baghdad.

And imagine what will happen now when violence is up, and there's so much political animosity with a sectarian edge. Hopefully the day won't be so bad, but Iraq is having this election in a very uncertain time.

MARTIN: Ned Parker. He is the Reuters Baghdad bureau chief. Thanks so much for talking with us.

PARKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.