Civilians shopping at street markets, worshipping at mosques and mourning at funerals have become the prime target of insurgents in a two-week spree of carnage that many people think is linked to efforts by foreign extremists to plunge Iraq into civil war.
At least 489 people, most of them civilians, have been killed by bombings and other insurgent attacks since Iraq's new government was announced by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on April 28.
Now, with the bodies of 50 men found shot to death by unknown assailants and dumped across the country over two days, fears are rising that foreigners like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may be making headway in their campaign to turn Iraq's fractious communities against each other.
There are worries the unexplained killings in Baghdad and other cities could be a result of angry Shiite and Sunni Muslims retaliating against each other's communities in frustration over two years of unrelenting insurgent attacks.
Religious leaders also have been singled out. Shiite cleric Qassim al-Gharawi died in a drive-by shooting in western Baghdad last week. Quraish Abdul Jabbar, a Sunni cleric, was reported shot dead and his body dumped behind a mosque in northeastern Baghdad on Monday.
"We are approaching a situation that is unstable, of a war of all against all, complete chaos, where the government is ineffective, the security is ineffective, and anybody can be killed at any time by anybody," said Kenneth Katzman, an expert on the Persian Gulf region with the US Congressional Research Service.
The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, made his intentions clear in a letter obtained and released last year by the US government saying that causing sectarian fighting between Shiite and Sunni was the best way to undermine US policy in Iraq.
Most of the insurgent attacks aimed at civilians have been in neighborhoods whose residents are predominantly from Iraq's Shiite Arab majority or their Kurdish allies. Many insurgents are thought to be from the formally dominant Sunni Arab minority, but many Iraqis blame foreign extremists for the assaults on civilians.
"This shows that the terrorists are in their last period. They weren't able to violate the security zone and therefore they started targeting schools, markets in order to kill civilians," the new defense minister, Saadoun al-Duleimi, said at a news conference Monday.
Al-Duleimi, a Sunni Arab, said insurgents killed 230 civilians last week alone, while only 13 Iraqi soldiers and policemen were slain.
The government's efforts to quell insurgent violence and keep Iraq's religious and ethnic communities from splitting could be complicated by the close relationship between the Interior Ministry, headed by Shiite leader Bayan Jabr, and the Badr Brigades, the militia of Iraq's leading Shiite group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Concern was raised when the militia, once regarded as terrorist by US officials, cooperated with security forces to capture four Palestinians and an Iraqi wanted for a bombing Thursday that killed at least 17 people at market in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad.
Al-Duleimi, the defense minister, has said he won't merge militias such as the Badr Brigades and the Kurdish Peshmerga into Iraq's army. The US has called for the militias to be disbanded.
Despite the violence and communal frictions, Katzman, the analyst at the Congressional Research Service, doesn't yet see Iraq tumbling into a sectarian war.
"Some would define this as some kind of civil war, but we don't yet have entire distinct camps across the country opposing each other," he said.
Iraq's influential Shiite leaders, particularly Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, are also playing a key role in tamping down resentments that could erupt into civil war.
One factor working against the effort by foreign extremists to foment civil war is the widespread belief among Iraqis that homegrown anti-US insurgents, either fervent nationalists opposed to foreign occupation or former Saddam loyalists angered by their fall from power, would not turn their weapons on fellow Iraqis.
So many Iraqis aim their anger over the attacks at foreign extremists and allied Iraqis who follow the puritanical Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam.
"Civilians are always going to the easiest targets, and the Islamic extremists coming into the country are using them to try torpedo Iraq's political process," said Ismael Zayer, editor-in-chief of the Iraqi newspaper Al-Sabah al-Gadeed.
"Civil war is the only scenario they have," Zayer said of the foreign terrorists. "These people have nothing else."
FOX HUNT: To suppress dissent, Chinese living abroad that Xi Jinping sees as threats are told to either return to China or commit suicide, Christopher Wray said Chinese agents have been pursuing hundreds of Chinese nationals living in the US in an effort to force their return, as part of a global campaign against the country’s diaspora, known as Operation Fox Hunt, FBI Director Christopher Wray said on Tuesday. In a speech about the security threat posed by China, during which he said Beijing’s counterintelligence work was the “greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property, and to our economic vitality,” Wray gave the example of one Fox Hunt target who was given a choice of going back to China or killing themselves. Fox Hunt was launched
INTERNET CURBS: People are rushing to erase their digital footprints after police given powers over online activity, although it might take years for the full effect to be felt At midnight on Tuesday, the Great Firewall of China, the vast apparatus that limits the country’s Internet, appeared to descend on Hong Kong. Unveiling expanded police powers as part of contentious new national security legislation, the Hong Kong government enabled police to censor online speech, and force Internet service providers to hand over user information and shut down platforms. Many residents, already anxious since the legislation took effect last week, rushed to erase their digital footprint of any signs of dissent or support for the past year of protests. Hong Kong Legislator Charles Mok (莫乃光), a pro-democracy member of the Legislative
‘SUICIDE’: Media reports said Park Won-soon went missing on Thursday after a staff member filed a sexual harassment claim against him this week Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, viewed as a potential candidate for the 2022 presidential election, was found dead of an apparent suicide hours after he was reported missing, police said, adding that he was the subject of an undisclosed investigation. In a note he is thought to have left behind on his desk, Park offered his apologies. “I thank everyone who was with me in my life. I apologize to my family for only making them suffer from pain,” according to the note that was released by his office yesterday. Park, in his letter, asked to be cremated and have his remains spread
RISKY BUSINESS: The Chinese firm has stockpiled 500,000 pieces of 5G equipment not covered by US sanctions, but fears a wider ban could be announced in the UK Huawei Technologies Co believes it can supply 5G hardware unaffected by US sanctions to the UK for the next five years, sidestepping the expected conclusion of British emergency review on Tuesday. The company has stockpiled 500,000 pieces of kit, but fears a wider ban on its equipment is to be unveiled to placate rebel British Conservative Party lawmakers, who say that the Chinese supplier represents a national security risk. The British government on Friday said that it was “very likely” that British Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden would make a statement to parliament on Tuesday