More than 1,000 people were killed in Iraq in January, figures showed Friday, as the country grapples with a surge in attacks and battles militants holding territory on Baghdad’s doorstep.
The violence, the country’s worst since 2008, comes with elections looming in less than three months amid fears Iraq may be slipping back into the all-out conflict that left tens of thousands dead years earlier.
World powers have urged the Shiite-led government to reach out to disaffected minority Sunnis but Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has taken a hard line and trumpeted wide-ranging security operations that he and other officials insist are having an impact.
The new figures, compiled by the ministries of health, interior and defence, showed that 1,013 people were killed in January, including 795 civilians, 122 soldiers and 96 policemen.
That was the highest toll since April 2008, when 1,073 people were killed, at a time when Iraq was slowly emerging from a brutal Sunni-Shiite sectarian war that left tens of thousands dead and scores of others displaced.
Another 2,024 people were wounded in January — 1,633 civilians, 238 soldiers and 153 policemen.
Meanwhile, security forces killed 189 militants and arrested 458.
The numbers were higher than those compiled by AFP, which tracked 992 deaths, according to reports from security and medical officials.
They confirm a wave of intensifying violence ahead of April 30 parliamentary elections, with near-daily bombings and shootings hitting Baghdad and cities to the north, including Mosul, Tuz Khurmatu, Baquba, Kirkuk, Samarra, Tikrit, and surrounding areas.
Shootings have largely targeted security forces and civil servants, while bombings have ripped through both Sunni and Shiite neighbourhoods, striking markets, commercial streets, cafes and other areas where civilians congregate.
No group has claimed responsibility for most of the bloodshed, but Sunni militant groups including the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have been blamed for most of the attacks.
ISIL has also been fighting in Anbar province, a mostly-Sunni desert region west of Baghdad, where the government lost control of the city of Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi weeks ago.
Other militant groups and anti-government fighters have also been involved in the battles, while the police and army have recruited their own tribal allies.
It is the first time militants have exercised such open control in Iraqi cities since the peak of violence that followed the US-led invasion of 2003.
The standoff has prompted more than 140,000 people to flee their homes, the UN refugee agency said, describing it as the worst displacement in Iraq since the peak of sectarian conflict.
Washington has provided Baghdad with weaponry to help it combat militants and also plans to sell it 24 Apache attack helicopters.
But diplomats and analysts say the authorities must do more to tackle grievances cited by Sunnis, who allege that the government and security forces unfairly target their community.
Analysts say that while the vast majority of Sunnis do not support violence or militancy, their anger at the authorities means they are less likely to cooperate in providing intelligence or information to security forces.
But officials have instead focused on anti-militant operations, and this week published a rare photograph purportedly of ISIL chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the first of its kind released by an official source.
The black and white picture, which provides a rare glimpse of the militant commander accused of ordering the killings of countless Iraqis, shows a balding man with a beard wearing a suit and tie.