With more than 700 people killed in just 30 days, April was the deadliest month in Iraq in five years. According to the United Nations Mission in the country, 712 Iraqis lost their lives in acts of terrorism and acts of violence in the month of April. Nearly 600 of the dead were civilians.
The string of attacks continued in the first days of May. On Friday, a bomb outside a Sunni mosque in Rashidiya killed at least seven, the Associated Press reported. In a separate incident, nine police officers and four militants were killed during clashes Thursday evening in the northern city of Mosul.
The new wave of violence spread over large parts of Iraq in the wake of a deadly raid by security forces on a Sunni protest encampment in the city of Hawija, north of Baghdad, earlier in April. The brazen assault by the army and police against the protesters -- Sunnis who were demonstrating against the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- set in motion a string of counterattacks by militants against Shiites and security forces. Shiite militants have returned the assaults by bombing Sunni targets.
Yet tension had been building long before the clashes in Hawija. “The situation has been deteriorating for the last two years, but particularly since December tensions have risen,” Human Rights Watch’s Erin Evers told The Huffington Post.
According to Evers, a new crackdown by Maliki against political enemies has led to extreme discontent, and in particular the Sunni community has felt disenfranchised and targeted. Since December, Sunnis have staged mass protests in cities around the country to voice their discontent with the Shiite-led government.
Although the protests have largely been peaceful, demonstrators have occasionally clashed with security forces. The Associated Press noted that at least five protesters were killed in such fighting during a protest in the city of Fallujah in January.
On April 21, clashes broke out when security forces raided a Sunni protest against the government in Hawija. Three police officers were killed, and dozens of protesters were left dead by the violence.
Maliki warned Iraqis in the wake of the incident of a return to the deadly sectarian clashes that terrorized the country from 2006 to 2008. "We all have to shoulder responsibility after what happened in Hawija and what's going on today in Suleiman Beg and other areas," he said, according to the AP. "If (sectarian) conflict erupts, there will be no winner or loser. All will lose, whether in southern or northern or western or eastern Iraq."
Maliki also hinted that tensions in Iraq are being exacerbated by negative spillover effects from the conflict in Syria. Maliki's Shiite government has been a silent supporter of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, primarily by allowing Iranian flights destined for Damascus to use Iraqi airspace. Radical Iraqi Sunni fighters, on the other hand, have sided with Syria's rebels and have joined the fight to remove the Assad regime from power.
“There’s a rising anger among the Iraqi population about the situation in Syria and the faith of Sunnis in Syria," says Mohamad Bazzi, a former Newsday correspondent in the region. "On the part of the regime, there may be a worry that if Assad falls in Syria, empowered Sunnis in Syria may help out Sunnis in Iraq and potentially challenge the Iraqi regime.”
Bazzi adds that other factors are aggravating Iraq's current crisis. “There are several things going on at the same time,” he says.
In addition to the bombings and attacks, the government has been trying to solve a long-standing conflict with tribal groups in Anbar province. And in the Sunni community, new radical groups have emerged that target Maliki and the government's alliance with Iran.
"In the past few days Maliki has been talking about reaching out to the Sunnis and the tribes in Anbar, but he needs to move very quickly if he wants to contain the violence," Bazzi said.
According to Evers, the government needs to give up its aggressive tactics in order for quiet to return. “The government needs to acknowledge that the strong arms tactics that it’s using are pushing Iraq to the brink,” she said. "Either they stop or all hell breaks loose.”