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Middle East on the brink as Iraq violence climbs

July was the deadliest month in Iraq in two years, according to Baghdad. Continued instability in Iraq coupled with civil war in Syria and tensions over Iran have raised concern of a possible broader regional conflict.

Violence escalated across Iraq during July after al-Qaeda launched a renewed offensive in the country, making it the deadliest month in nearly two years.

Iraq's health, interior and defense ministries reported on Wednesday that 325 people were killed in July, including 241 civilians, 40 police officers and 44 soldiers. Nearly 700 people were injured, the vast majority of them also civilians. That makes it the worst month since August 2010, when 426 people were killed.

The news agency AFP reported that there were attacks during 27 of the 31 days in July. The deadliest single day was July 23, when a series of coordinated bombings and shootings killed more than 100 people.

Al-Qaeda offensive

The spike in violence comes some seven months after US combat forces withdrew completely from Iraq in December 2011. The Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaeda's branch in the country, announced in July a new military offensive to mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"As part of the new military campaign aimed at recovering territory given up by the Islamic State of Iraq, the war ministry has sent its sons and the mujahedeen on a sacred offensive during the month of Ramadan," the group said.

During the period of 2006-2007, al-Qaeda sparked a sectarian war in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. But a military surge by US troops and Sunni militias managed to stabilize and significantly reduce the worst of the violence.

It remains unclear, however, whether Iraqi forces can contain al-Qaeda now that the US-led coalition forces have withdrawn.

Syria fuelling regional instability

Analysts attribute the rise in violence in Iraq partially to the escalating civil war in neighboring Syria. Sunni Arab tribes stretch across the Syrian-Iraqi frontier and maintain close contact.

Iraqi officials say that al-Qaeda militants are crossing into and out of Iraq via the Syrian border. Syrian rebels recently seized border posts along the Iraqi frontier. Baghdad has sent troops and tanks to the border to prevent gunmen from moving between the two countries.

"Syria presents a real opportunity to terrorists," John Drake, a security analyst with the AKE group, told the AFP news agency. "The lack of authority in large swathes of the country could provide these groups with extensive opportunity to consolidate their strength and launch attacks in the wider region."

Tensions over Iran

Growing tension over Iran's nuclear program has raised concern that the broader region could be pushed to war. The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a new package of sanctions against Iran on Wednesday. The measures are aimed at punishing companies that help Iran sell its oil abroad.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta emphasized in a bilateral meeting on Wednesday that they were prepared to use force if Iran did not stop enriching uranium and open up its nuclear program to inspectors.

Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Both Iran and Syria are allies of the Shiite militia group Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

slk/jm (AFP, Reuters)