The United Nations said Saturday that at least 733 Iraqis were killed in January, even when not including casualties from an embattled western province, in violence that threatens to plunge the country into chaos ahead of its first national elections since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011.
The figures issued Saturday by the U.N.'s mission to Iraq show 618 civilians and 115 members of the security forces were killed in January. Baghdad was the worst affected province, with 297 killed and 585 wounded. Also, the U.N. said at least 1,229 Iraqis were wounded in attacks across the country last month.
But the UNAMI statement excluded deaths from ongoing fighting in Anbar, due to problems in verifying the "status of those killed." The figures also leave out the number of armed fighters' deaths.
Al-Qaeda-linked fighters and their allies seized control of the city of Fallujah and parts of the Anbar provincial capital Ramadi last month after authorities dismantled a protest camp by Sunnis angry at what they consider second-class treatment by the Shia-led government.
The government and its tribal allies are besieging the rebel-held areas, with fighting reported daily.
Last week, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said that 140,000 Iraqis have fled from the embattled areas of Anbar, the largest displacement of civilians in the country since the sectarian violence of 2006-2008.
A few days ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it had delivered aid, such as blankets, food and kitchen sets, to more than 3,000 people in the center of Fallujah.
The number of dead in 2013 rivals 2006 and 2007 figures, when the country was embroiled in a brutal civil war. Tit-for-tat attacks drove millions from their homes and forced at least one million to leave the country as refugees.
Michael Knights, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who recently visited Iraq, told Al Jazeera he believed civilians would, unlike in 2006, sit out on the current conflict and that the mass attacks "are beginning to severely test Shia patience, resulting in growing evidence of revenge attacks on Sunni mosques, preachers, and civilians."
But, he continued, "the Iraqi security forces appear to be the ultimate Shia militia, corralling Sunnis into ghettoized neighborhoods, where they are subject to repressive policing and economic isolation."
The first national elections since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011 will take place in April, with no candidate in sight to challenge Maliki's rule, though another contender could emerge before the elections.
Maliki's Dawa party is expected to retain power with the help of other aligned, Shia groups -- though some Shia leaders will challenge him on a separate ticket.
No Sunni challenger has emerged. The government's finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, a moderate Sunni, resigned in protest in March 2013 after security forces raided his office. He said he felt his party -- the Iraqiya List, headed by former PM Ayad Allawi, was being targeted.
De-Baathification, a law still in effect from 2003 meant to weed out Saddam Hussein-era officials from positions of power, has been used by the Maliki government to isolate, arrest, or oust political threats and opponents.
Ranj Alaaldin, a Middle East analyst and doctoral researcher with the London School of Economics, said he thought violence would continue throughout 2014.
"Terrorists will continue targeting sensitive and crowded areas with the aim of launching mass-casualty attacks," he said in an interview, adding that al-Qaeda-linked groups will see the upcoming elections as an opportunity "to undermine the government and exacerbate political tensions."
Al Jazeera and wire services
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