The United Nations said Saturday that violence across Iraq in February killed 703 people, a death toll higher than the year before as the country faces a rising wave of militant attacks rivaling the sectarian bloodshed that followed the U.S.-led invasion.
The figures issued by the UN's mission to Iraq is close to January's death toll of 733, showing that a surge of violence that began 10 months ago with a government crackdown on a Sunni protest camp is not receding. Meanwhile, attacks Saturday killed at least five people and wounded 14, authorities said.
Attacks in February killed 564 civilians and 139 security force members in February, the UN said. The violence wounded 1,381, the vast majority civilians, it said. That compares to February 2013, when attacks killed 418 civilians and wounded 704.
The capital, Baghdad, was the worst affected with 239 people killed, according to the UN. Two predominantly Sunni provinces — central Salaheddin with 121 killed and northern Ninevah with 94 killed — followed.
UN mission chief Nickolay Mladenov appealed to Iraqis to stop the violence.
"The political, social and religious leaders of Iraq have an urgent responsibility to come together in the face of the terrorist threat that the country is facing," Mladenov said in a statement. "Only by working together can Iraqis address the causes of violence and build a democratic society in which rule of law is observed and human rights are protected."
Death toll likely higher
February's numbers could be even worse that the UN reported, however, as it again excluded deaths from ongoing fighting in Anbar province, due to problems in verifying the "status of those killed." It did the same in January.
Al-Qaeda-linked fighters and their allies seized the city of Fallujah and parts of the Anbar provincial capital Ramadi in late December after authorities dismantled a protest camp. Like the camp in the northern Iraqi town of Hawija whose dismantlement in April sparked violent clashes and set off the current upsurge in killing, the Anbar camp was set up 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.
Widespread chaos nearly tore the country apart following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. The violence ebbed in 2008 after a series of U.S.-Iraqi military offensives, a Shia militia cease-fire and a Sunni revolt against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
But last year, the country saw the highest death toll since the worst of the country's sectarian bloodletting, according to the UN, with 8,868 people killed.
Meanwhile, attacks continued Saturday.
In the town of Tarmiyah, about 50 kilometres north of Baghdad, gunmen in speeding cars attacked a checkpoint for pro-government, anti-al-Qaeda Sunni tribal militias, killing two and wounding four, a police officer said. The Awakening Councils, or Sahwa, were first formed and financed by the U.S. troops to help fighting extremist militant groups. They are the favourite targets for the insurgent groups who see them as traitors.
Another group of gunmen attacked an army check point outside Baghdad's western outskirts of Abu Ghraib, killing two soldiers and wounding four, another police officer said. Inside Abu Ghraib, a bomb went off in an outdoor market, killing one civilian and wounding six, he added.
Two medical officials confirmed causalty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release the information.