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'Not a pretty scenario' in Iraq, analyst says

By Mohammed Tawfeeq and Joe Sterling, CNN
January 27, 2012 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: "The situation is worsening in Iraq," Iraq Body County analysts says
  • An Iraqi colonel and his family are believed to be targets of latest bombing, authorities say
  • At least 31 people died and 60 others were wounded, police say
  • The blast is the latest in a series of attacks to hit Iraq this year

(CNN) -- A suicide car bomber targeting a Shiite funeral procession in Baghdad killed dozens Friday, the latest attack in a country engulfed by political crisis and an uptick in violence.

At least 31 people died and 60 others were wounded, two police officials said. The bombing occurred as mourners were heading toward a hospital in Baghdad's Zafarniya district to recover the bodies of relatives shot the night before, officials said.

The blast is the latest in a series of attacks, raising fears of a return to the sectarian violence of the previous decade when the Sunni-Shiite hostilities engulfed Iraq at the height of the war.

The bloodshed has generated uncertainty about the ability of Iraqi security forces to ensure order, particularly after the United States withdrew troops at the end of 2011, as well as fear about the future.

"The situation is worsening," said Hamit Dardagan, co-founder and principal analyst of the London-based Iraq Body Count, a group that tracks civilian deaths. And Ramzy Mardini, research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said, "Sectarian politics in Iraq is setting the stage for armed conflict."

New fears of Iraq violence

Most of those killed in recent weeks were Shiite pilgrims marking Arbaeen, the end of a 40-day mourning period, officials said. Mardini said Iraqi security forces have also been targeted. Those forces stationed in Baghdad have a large Shiite presence.

According to Iraq Body Count, civilian deaths reached their peak in 2006 and 2007, with 28,250 and 25,063, respectively. They dropped to 9,385 in 2008 and then plateaued the next three years -- 4,713 in 2009, 4,045 in 2010 and 4,087 in 2011.

In the last five months, there have been 398 deaths in August, 394 in September, 355 in October, 272 in November and 371 in December.

Dardagan said Friday's attack would bring January's deaths to more than 400.

"It's not like a radical, huge jump," he said. "It sort of shows a constant level of violence that doesn't seem to let up. Just recently, it's been worsening."

He added, "One thing we are seeing recently is the rise in the kind of large-scale bombings that are very difficult to control. You can't search the boot of every car."

As for the political ferment, Iraq's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders have squared off in recent weeks over an arrest warrant for Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who is accused of organizing his security detail into a death squad that targeted government and military officials.

The arrest warrant was issued shortly after the vice president's Sunni-backed Iraqiya party announced it would boycott Parliament, saying Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was cutting it out of the decision-making process.

Al-Hashimi has denied the charges, saying the accusations are politically motivated amid the rivalry between his political bloc and al-Maliki's Shiite majority bloc.

The situation has been further inflamed with a political bloc loyal to radical, anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr calling for the dissolution of Parliament and early elections.

Mardini, the Institute for the Study of War analyst, said the violence appears to have reached a point "where casualties may go up or down in a given period but stay within an expected range."

He said the security environment is deteriorating amid a challenging "political crisis," the departure of U.S. troops and rivalries in Iraq among regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and Sunni Arab countries.

"It's not a pretty scenario. There doesn't seem to be a stabilizing presence or force," such as a regional power or a credible mediator to resolve the crisis.

"Iraq has entered a new era of post-Saddam politics," Mardini said.

He said the United States is trying to help foster political stability but "its leverage has been largely decapitated."

"The U.S. presence on the ground had performed a critical psychological function over the state of affairs in Iraq," Mardini said, and it "provided space for politics to stabilize."

Mardini said he expects sectarian sentiment to "get worse."

Mardini said that al-Maliki's popularity is increasing among Shiites for aggressively targeting Sunni political figures.

However, many Shiites also support federalism and al-Maliki is aware that Sunni efforts in embracing that idea may encourage Shiite provinces to do the same. For example, some people in the Shiite oil region of Basra in the south would like autonomy to get a greater share of oil profits.

The country's power-sharing agreement, he said, has become like the Treaty of Versailles, the post-World War I pact.

"It has failed to sustain the peace and laid the basis for another round of armed conflict," Mardini said.

As for the Friday attack, authorities said they believe Col. Norman Dakhil may have been the target of the bomber.

Dakhil and his family were in the procession making their way to a hospital to collect bodies of three relatives, including his brother, when the bomb exploded, police said.

Gunmen opened fire on the three relatives the day before in Baghdad's al-Yarmouk neighborhood.

The colonel escaped the suicide bombing unharmed, police officials said.

The two police officials spoke about the attack on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release details to the media.

Also Friday, a teenager was killed and three others wounded when a roadside bomb exploded near a soccer field as they were playing in Ghazaliya, a predominately Sunni neighborhood in western Baghdad, police said.

CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq reported from Baghdad and Joe Sterling reported from Atlanta.

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