Al Qaeda fighters take over the twn of Ramadi
Al Qaeda fighters take over the twn of Ramadi Reuters

2013 was one of the bloodiest in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003, according to statistics released by the UN today.

8,868 people were killed in sectarian violence across the country last year, including 7,818 civilians and 1,050 security forces personnel, making it the bloodiest in five years. The bloodshed in 2013 did not however reach the levels seen during the height of clashes in 2006-2007 between the country's Shia majority and Sunni minority, which saw wave after wave of bombings, shootings, and brutal executions.

That previous wave of violence largely abated after Al Qaeda in Iraq - a key protagonist behind the conflict - suffered a series of setbacks, both due to the US military "surge" at the time and the formation of a powerful alliance of Sunni tribesmen known as the "Sahwa" or "Awakening" Council, after Al Qaeda's brutal conduct triggered a backlash even among its traditional Sunni support-base.

The trigger for the most recent surge in violence came in April, when government forces forcibly cleared a protest camp set up by Sunni Muslim activists. Sunni Islamists led by Al Qaeda have responded with deadly bombing campaigns in Shia-majority areas, as well as with coordinated attacks against Iraqi security forces. But in truth the violence never far from the surface.

In recent years three factors in particular have contributed to a resurgence by Al Qaeda in Iraq: the worsening political vacuum in Baghdad; simmering resentment by Iraq's Sunni population which dominated the country's political landscape until the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, only to see itself eclipsed by the Shia majority; and perhaps most importantly the chaos in neighboring Syria, which has provided Al Qaeda with a haven to train, organize and coordinate its forces in both countries, under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

The UN statistics add that 759 were killed in December alone, 661 of whom were civilians.

This past Saturday saw tension rise even further after the arrest of an influential Sunni MP triggered clashes which killed six people. Al Qaeda fighters have reportedly taken advantage of the violence to seize control of a number of towns in the western Ramadi district, prompting Iraq's Shia Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to appeal to Sunni leaders to help reign in the violence.