Extremist Violence Spreads Across Western Iraq

Death toll is highest in years, according to troubling U.N. report.

People in a street with empty bullets on the ground following fighting between Islamist jihadists and Iraqi special forces in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad on Jan. 3, 2014.
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Iraq remains embattled in sectarian violence, following a string of coordinated attacks by al-Qaida militants in the western reaches of the country Thursday, reports the Associated Press. The extremists are likely exploiting Sunni Muslims' widespread discontent with what they see as a discriminatory central government.

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The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaida affiliated group also known as ISIS, has operated with increased strength in recent months across the Iraqi border with neighboring Syria, also caught up in protracted violence. Iraqi security forces repelled these extremists with Hellfire rockets – supplied by the U.S. – in towns such as Anbar, where a truck laden with explosives detonated on a busy commercial street.

This latest fighting follows other uprisings in Ramadi and Fallujah a day earlier. Police had broken up sit-in protests in Ramadi regarding the majority Shia government's perceived exclusion of Sunni Muslims.

Sunni insurgent groups such as ISIS present themselves as a champion for the Sunni cause, though many Sunni tribes throughout the country continue to battle al-Qaida and its affiliates.

At least 19 people were killed in the latest attack and 37 were wounded, according to the AP, which has more details on the scope of this latest violence.

"This is a common threat that we are obviously very familiar with, and we are helping to support the Iraqi Government in this common fight," said State Department spokeswoman Marie Sharf on Thursday. "We've encouraged the government to work with the population to fight these terrorists to draw on some of the lessons, quite frankly, we learned when we were there, to isolate extremists which exist on both sides, and encourage moderates on both sides."

[WORLD REPORT: Iraq Leans Toward Iran as U.S. Departs]

Violence in Iraq erupted and has spread consistently since the 2011 complete withdrawal from U.S. forces there.

These latest reports come on the heels of a U.N. announcement that the death toll in Iraq is the highest it has been in years. More than 7,800 Iraqis died in 2013, the U.N. said Thursday, which some analysts believe could be indicative of a return to the pre-surge years in the U.S. war in Iraq from 2004 to 2007 where tens of thousands of Iraqis died annually.

"This is a sad and terrible record which confirms once again the urgent need for the Iraqi authorities to address the roots of violence to curb this infernal circle," said Nickolay Mladenov, head of the U.N. mission in Iraq.

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