updated 7/18/2006 2:50:13 PM ET 2006-07-18T18:50:13

A Sunni driver lures Shiites into a van by promising jobs — then blows it up, killing 53 people. Sunni gunmen spray bullets and grenades at shoppers, not caring that they include women and children. Shiite death squads roam Baghdad streets, singling out and slaughtering Sunnis.

The new unity government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds was supposed to bring Iraqis together. Instead, sectarian bloodletting is spiraling out of control.

In the last two days alone, more than 120 people were killed in two spectacular examples of Sunni-Shiite violence — 53 in the suicide van bombing Tuesday in Kufa and 50 in the massacre Monday in the market in Mahmoudiya.

Since then, at least 19 more have been slain in Mahmoudiya in what police say were reprisals for the market massacre. Their bodies were found by police, scattered in different parts of town.

American officials had hoped the unity government, which took office May 20, could curb sectarian attacks by promoting cooperation between the sects. It promised to disband the Shiite militias and persuade Sunni insurgents to lay down their arms, so that U.S. troops could go home.

But unity in parliament has not been translated into peace on the streets. Lawmakers elected on religiously based tickets find it difficult to restrain their constituents, whose lives are under constant threat by the rival religious group.

Heading toward collapse’
With the government unable to protect them, people put their trust in religious-based militias. The killings continue and the government loses respect with every mass killing.

“The security situation is heading toward collapse,” Shiite politician Bassem Sharif warned last week. “There is sectarian animosity within the Iraqi public, and this is putting pressure on the political process.”

Instead of withdrawal, the top U.S. commander, Gen. George W. Casey, said last week that more U.S. troops may take to the streets if Iraqi forces cannot cope with the rising violence.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may yet be able to reverse the slide. But public confidence is waning. His much-heralded security plan for Baghdad — which includes 50,000 police and troops operating checkpoints and patrolling the capital — is widely perceived as a failure.

“Iraqis had hoped for good news when al-Maliki formed his Cabinet,” commentator Mohammed al-Shabout wrote in the government-owned newspaper Al-Sabah. “But regrettably, the good news ceased. We regret to say all we have is bad news.”

And there’s plenty of bad news.

In the first 18 days of July, at least 695 Iraqis were killed in sectarian or war-related violence and 1,029 wounded, according to an AP count. That represents a sharp rise over the same period last year, when an AP count showed more than 450 Iraqis were killed.

Numbers don't do justice
But statistics alone cannot convey the depth of the sectarian brutality.

In Kufa, police said the suicide attacker drove to a street corner where laborers congregate, hoping someone will offer them work for the day. The driver promised jobs, filled the van, and then detonated it on a bustling street.

Sunni gunmen in Mahmoudiya sprayed the crowd of mostly Shiite shoppers Monday with automatic weapons and fired rocket-propelled grenades into the melee, according to police and survivors. In the aftermath, children lay on hospital gurneys, their legs shattered, their bodies writhing in pain.

Nearly every day, police find corpses in Baghdad streets and vacant lots, victims of death squads that hunt down members of the rival sect. The bodies often show signs of horrific torture, including holes drilled into their eyes or skulls.

As a result, many Iraqis — especially those who live in Baghdad and other religiously mixed cities — are terrified. Almost everyone seems to have a relative or acquaintance who has disappeared or died violently.

Fear, the constant companion
Airlines that fly out of Baghdad are heavily booked through the summer as Iraqis with enough money send their families abroad — many of them for long stays. But most Iraqis can’t leave, and are forced to live in a constant state of fear.

In Baghdad, few venture out in the evening — except in districts where their sect is in the majority and the streets are controlled by militias. Motorists use streets that steer clear of areas where the other sect dominates.

In a statement June 27, the United Nations estimated that about 150,000 Iraqis had fled their neighborhoods to escape sectarian and insurgency-related violence during the previous four months.

The lucky ones find shelter with relatives in areas where most people are members of their own sect. The less fortunate end up in small tent cities clustered around mosques.

Blame and counterblame
U.S. officials blame much of the sectarian crisis on the legacy of the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaida in Iraq until he was killed in a U.S. airstrike June 7. The Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi considered Shiites heretics and collaborators with the Americans and sought to promote civil war by repeated attacks on Shiite civilians.

“Terrorists have adapted by exploiting Iraq’s sectarian fault lines,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told a Senate committee last week. “Sectarian violence has now become the significant challenge to Iraq’s future.”

Others believe the U.S. contributed to sectarian strains by appearing to favor Shiites early in the occupation, in the belief that many Sunni Arabs remained loyal to Saddam Hussein. That perception fueled Sunni fears that the Shiite majority would seek payback for repression under Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime.

Although sectarian killings began soon after Saddam fell in 2003 but accelerated after the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra five months ago. That triggered a tidal wave of reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics.

The latest outbreak began July 1 when a car bombing killed 66 people in Bagdad’s heavily Shiite district of Sadr City. A week later, masked Shiite gunmen roamed the streets of Baghdad’s Jihad neighborhood killing Sunnis. At least 41 people died.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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