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Iraqis fear ‘new cycle’ of violence

Many Iraqis are increasingly uneasy that a wave of bombings and shootings may revive all-out sectarian warfare that ravaged the country several years ago.
A man grieves as the coffin of a relative killed in a bombing is taken for burial in the Shiite city of Najaf, south of Baghdad on Tuesday. Alaa Al-marjani / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Many Iraqis are increasingly uneasy that a wave of bombings and shootings may revive all-out sectarian warfare that ravaged the country several years ago. In Baghdad and other cities, some are falling back into old cautionary habits — going outside only when necessary and avoiding busy markets and other crowded places.

These small but significant steps show the trepidation many Iraqis feel at a time when the country is floundering without a new government and facing threats of more attacks from al-Qaida-linked groups.

"If this power vacuum and struggle continues, then everybody is expecting the worst. We are afraid that more attacks and more security deterioration will push the country in a new cycle" of violence, said Qassim Jassim, of Mahmoudiya, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Baghdad. He said he and his family are staying home more often as a result.

On Friday, al-Qaida in Iraq warned Shiites in an announcement that "dark days soaked with blood" lie ahead with a new campaign of violence yet to come.

Hours later, a bomb went off outside a mosque south of Baghdad, wounding 20 people, police said. Ten people were also killed in the northern city of Tal Afar by suicide bombers near a soccer field. Earlier this week, 119 people were killed across the country on Monday, and a botched car bombing killed nine people in Baghdad's Sadr City on Wednesday.

Such attacks — many targeting Shiites — appear designed to provoke Shiite groups such as followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to respond in kind.

Few people suggest the conditions right now are prime for a full-fledged sectarian war similar to 2006 — violence is still sporadic and nowhere near levels of just a few years ago; militias such as al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, while throwing their weight around, haven't taken up arms, and the neighborhood-against-neighborhood violence that marked the earlier fighting is absent.

Also, many say they are simply tired of the violence and will be even more wary this time before allowing their country to plunge into fighting.

But Iraqis are certainly worried
More than two months have passed since the March 7 election, in which none of the blocs won a majority in parliament. The resulting political stalemate has led to concern about ongoing attacks at a time when, many Iraqis charge, politicians are more focused on retaining their positions than on protecting the country.

In the election, a bloc led by Ayad Allawi, a Shiite with strong Sunni support, won the most parliament seats. Incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has challenged the results and has formed a coalition with fellow Shiites that potentially could exclude Sunnis — though the election commission announced Friday that a full recount in Baghdad province showed no fraud or major irregularities.

"Sunnis will be very frustrated if (Allawi's) list is sidelined in the new government," said Omar al-Bayati, from Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah. "Many Sunnis think the formula of the current government should be changed; otherwise, the country is heading to the worst."

Suspicion runs both ways. One of the victims of the Tal Afar bombings, Hussein Mizhir, said the mostly Shiite victims preferred to go to a Kurdish hospital in Dahuk, instead of the hospital in Mosul which is closer but is also a hotbed of Sunni insurgents.

Al-Qaida seems to determined to exploit any sectarian tensions. In its announcement on Friday, its umbrella group in Iraq also named a new so-called "minister of war" to replace its leader, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who was killed in April.

At the time, U.S. and Iraqi officials touted the deaths of al-Masri and another high-ranking al-Qaida figure as a potentially devastating blow, but the Sunni terror group seems determined to show its relevance.

"It is clear that al-Qaida is trying to ignite the sectarian war in this country and with the latest attacks, I think that the civil war is a possibility," said Alaa Mohammed, of the city of Hillah, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Baghdad, scene of some of the worst bombings Monday.

Mohammed said he and his family are going shopping in the afternoon when markets are less crowded to protect themselves.

In 2006, Shiites and Sunnis largely relied on insurgent groups and militias to protect their neighborhoods because Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops were largely unable to do so. Eventually neighborhoods were simply walled off with large concrete blast walls that crisscrossed the city and kept warring factions apart. Most of the walls were later dismantled when major violence abated.

Laith Ahmed Salim, a student in western Baghdad, said there is no militia activity in his Ghazaliyah neighborhood but that people are watching for signs of danger and will be quick to guard their area if needed.

Iraqis on both sides of the sectarian divide have little trust in Iraqi security forces' ability to protect the country. Many people are jaded by what they view as a system that values patronage over protection and frustrated at the ability of insurgents to carry out attacks despite Iraqi checkpoints at almost every turn.

Following bombings in April that killed 72 people, furious residents in Sadr City pelted the security forces with stones when they arrived on the scene. Al-Sadr offered Iraqi authorities the help of his forces — an offer viewed by many as a thinly veiled threat to rearm.

On Friday, men wearing the distinctive black shirts of Mahdi Army members or other al-Sadr followers could be seen working alongside Iraqi security forces to search people entering the area where weekly prayers are held near the Sadrist offices.

"We don't trust the government. We don't trust the security. We will protect ourselves," said one woman who came to pray, Nahedi Abdul Wahid.

But the normally crowded streets around the offices where worshippers usually lay out prayer mats were quieter Friday, because many people appeared to stay away.

"My mother ordered me not to go because of the violence," said Haidar al-Waili, a Sadr City resident.

An official with the Ministry of Interior said Iraqi security forces have taken steps to prevent a return to sectarian violence; the official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

To be sure, the situation today is much different than it was in 2006 or 2007 when death squads would raid neighborhoods, dump bodies on the street or leave a bullet on someone's doorstep as a warning that they should move to a different neighborhood.

From January through May 13, a total of 1,164 Iraqis were killed, according to a count by The Associated Press. That compares to 3,608 Iraqis killed during the same period in 2006.

"I do not think that that the sectarian war will break out again because Iraqis are now aware of the risks and the cost of such strife," said Hussein Rashid, from Hillah.