Attacks in Sunni-majority areas of Iraq killed nine people Sunday, exactly a month before parliamentary polls with violence at its worst since the country emerged from a bloody sectarian conflict.
The latest violence came hours after seven soldiers were shot dead at a checkpoint in a late-night attack by militants in the north, the latest in a surge in bloodshed that has killed more than 2,200 people already this year.
The unrest has been driven principally by anger in the Sunni Arab minority over alleged mistreatment at the hands of the Shiite-led authorities, as well as by the civil war raging in neighbouring Syria.
A suicide bomber detonated a vehicle packed with explosives on a major bridge in Ramadi, a city west of Baghdad where security forces are still grappling to retain full control after militants took over several neighbourhoods two months ago.
The blast killed seven people and wounded 10 more, and also badly damaged the Hauz Bridge, a key crossing used by civilians connecting the north and south of the city.
Ramadi originally had five bridges across the Euphrates River before a militant surge earlier this year.
But two are used exclusively by security forces, and two others — including the Hauz Bridge — have now been damaged to the point that they can no longer be used.
Civilians in Ramadi are now able to cross only the Albu Faraj bridge in the north of the city.
Ramadi is the capital of Anbar province, a predominantly Sunni desert region in west Iraq that shares a border with Syria.
In early January, anti-government fighters seized control of parts of the city and all of nearby Fallujah, also in Anbar.
But while security forces have managed to take back most of Ramadi, a stalemate persists in Fallujah, which remains in militant control.
– Jihadist buried in Fallujah –
Illustrating the control militants hold over Fallujah, anti-government fighters held a funeral for a senior leader of the powerful Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant jihadist group on Sunday, after he and two aides were killed in an artillery strike a day earlier.
Witnesses said a heavily armed convoy of vehicles accompanied the funeral for Abdulrahman al-Kuwaiti, who entered Anbar from Syria, according to a security official.
Elsewhere on Sunday, two police officers were killed by a roadside bomb that exploded near their car in Tikrit north of Baghdad. Like Ramadi, Tikrit’s population is made up mostly of Sunni Arabs.
The attacks came just hours after militants opened fire on an army checkpoint near the restive northern city of Mosul, killing seven soldiers in a late-night shooting.
In Mosul city itself, gunmen also killed a doctor.
Violence has surged in Iraq in the past year, with more than 500 people killed so far this month, according to an AFP tally.
Analysts and diplomats have urged the Shiite-led authorities to do more to reach out to the Sunni community to undermine support for militancy, but with the elections looming on April 30, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Shiite leaders have taken a hard line.
The polls were briefly thrown into disarray by the mass resignation last week of Iraq’s nine election commissioners, who cited parliamentary and judicial interference.
The Independent High Electoral Commission’s board withdrew those resignations on Sunday, however, after talks with the United Nations mission in Iraq, largely quelling fears that the country’s first elections since 2010 could be delayed.