More than 1,000 people were killed in Iraq in July, the highest monthly death toll in five years, the UN has said. The grim figure shows rapidly the deteriorating security as sectarian tensions soar nearly two years after US troops withdrew from the country.
Violence has been on the rise all year, but the number of attacks against civilians and security forces has spiked during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began early last month. The increased bloodshed has intensified fears that Iraq is on a path back to the widespread chaos that nearly tore the country apart in the aftermath of the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein in 2003.
It follows months of rallies by Iraq's minority Sunnis against the Shiite-led government over what they contend is second-class treatment and the unfair use of tough anti-terrorism measures against their sect.
The killings significantly picked up after Iraqi security forces launched a heavy-handed crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija on April 23. A ferocious backlash followed the raid, with deadly bomb attacks and sporadic gunbattles between insurgents and soldiers - this time members of the Iraqi security forces rather than US troops.
The U.N. Mission in Iraq said 1,057 Iraqis were killed and 2,326 wounded in July, the highest toll since June 2008 when 975 people were killed.
The increase was particularly troubling because the numbers had begun declining five years ago following a series of US-led offensives and a Sunni revolt against al Qaida in Iraq.
"We haven't seen such numbers in more than five years, when the blind rage of sectarian strife that inflicted such deep wounds upon this country was finally abating. I reiterate my urgent call on Iraq's political leaders to take immediate and decisive action to stop the senseless bloodshed, and to prevent these dark days from returning," acting UN envoy to Iraq, Gyorgy Busztin, said in a statement.
The UN said that 928 of those killed in July were civilians and 129 were Iraqi security forces.
In all, 4,137 civilians have been killed, most in Baghdad, and 9,865 wounded so far this year, according to the statement. That was up from 1,684 killed in the January-July period last year.
Al-Qaida in Iraq has claimed responsibility for many of the suicide attacks and car bombings in recent days as it seeks to stoke sectarian hatred.