Embattled Iraq insurgency shifts tactics, eyes poll
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - By staking its reputation on improving security, Iraq's Shi'ite-led government has made itself a target for insurgents determined to undermine the prime minister ahead of national polls next year.
Local security forces helped tame much of the violence that has plagued Iraq since 2003, but the political maneuvering ahead of the March 7 parliamentary poll magnifies festering sectarian divisions and gives insurgents a chance to make an impact.
Police say car bombs killed 112 people in Baghdad on Tuesday, the latest attack on government facilities that reflect a tactical shift by insurgents who for years aimed their bloody attacks on softer civilian targets such as markets.
Militants linked to al Qaeda have claimed responsibility for the bombings. Similar attacks in October and August devastated the Finance, Foreign and Justice Ministries, killing hundreds, and chipping away at Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's reputation for having improved security in Iraq.
Maliki was summoned on Thursday to parliament to answer for the attacks. Rumors abound of government sackings, shaking Iraq just as it prepares to host global oil chiefs for a crucial auction of oilfield contracts.
"Insurgents are aiming to shatter (Maliki's) legitimacy and sow more chaos among the different political groups. In some ways it works," IHS Global Insight Iraq analyst Gala Riani said.
The 2003 U.S. invasion triggered years of sectarian bloodshed between Iraq's once dominant minority Sunnis and majority Shi'ites, who stand to dominate any democratic vote.
Sunni Islamist insurgents such as al Qaeda consider Shi'ites heretics, and by bombing Shi'ite targets, they were able to spark a sectarian war that almost tore Iraq apart.
But more recent attacks on Shi'ites have failed to trigger a similar response, partly due to government crackdowns on Shi'ite militias, militia ceasefires, and reluctance of the Iraqi public to support sectarian causes after years of war.
"The bad guys will observe the effect their strategies are having ... Whatever was happening, it wasn't working," said David Livingstone, security analyst at Chatham House.
COLLUSION WITH INSURGENTS?
While attacks are less frequent than before, spectacular bombings like the ones this week come at a sensitive time for Iraqi politics, where feuding has crippled progress on major legislation and delayed national polls.
Many Iraqis and analysts suspect the divisions may have even fostered collusion between militants and security forces.
Insurgents have been driven out of many areas over the past year, but they continue to strike in Baghdad and northern Iraq, where political squabbles between ethnic Kurds, Sunnis and Shi'ites over oil, land and power are ripe for exploitation.
Strikes at heavily guarded government buildings at the very least show some local forces, more loyal to their feuding political masters than the state, are not doing their job.
"Clearly the attacks would have been extremely difficult without some form of insider cooperation. I think that's what it highlights ... that Iraq is still so divided," Riani said.
Overall violence has fallen, and November saw the lowest civilian death toll in Iraq since 2003. This has emboldened Maliki, who has staked his reputation on security.
"The environment has changed. Insurgents are unable to do a large number of attacks," said Rohan Gunaratna, author of a book on al Qaeda and professor at a terrorism research center.
But security forces' successes may have forced insurgents to consolidate limited resources for major, better-timed attacks. The daily drip-feed of medium to low level casualties no longer grab headlines.
Iraq's relative calm made Tuesday's bombings and the attacks in October and August all the more jarring, and the timing -- as Maliki prepares to campaign for a March 7 parliamentary election on a law and order platform -- all the more difficult for the prime minister.
"Insurgents want to send a very powerful signal. Iraq is not stable or secure, and is still in their hands," Gunaratna said.
(Editing by Missy Ryan and Noah Barkin)
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