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Storms in U.S. divert gaze from worsening Iraq

America might have turned away for a while, but the war in Iraq has not gone away. NBC News' Peter Alexander reports on a major surge in violence ahead of the Oct. 15 referendum on the  new Iraqi constitution.
Local residents view destruction after suicide car bomber hits market in Iraqi town of Balad
Residents view the destruction on Friday left after a suicide car bomber struck a vegetable market Thursday evening in the Iraqi town of Balad. Ceerwan Aziz / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

Focused on its own troubles, America might have turned away for a while, but the situation in Iraq has not improved. In fact, there has been a surge in violence.

In the month since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, at least 55 U.S. soldiers have been killed. The Iraqi death toll is many times greater, though much harder to calculate. Sunni insurgents have terrorized many parts of Iraq, especially those occupied by majority Shiites, with a relentless series of suicide attacks, roadside bombs and shootings. Attacks on Thursday and Friday of this week alone have left more than 100 Iraqis dead.

‘It’s hell’
"It's worse," said 29-year-old Saif al-Hakim, who recently returned to his homeland after spending most of the last year in Los Angeles. "It's hell."

Al-Hakim, a graduate of the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television, is an entrepreneur, a television producer with aspirations of becoming a Hollywood director. One of the many attacks that strike Baghdad each day, a car bombing, left his business in a formerly peaceful neighborhood in ruins.

"It ravaged my company completely," he said. "I was sitting in my office and I could see grenades thrown in the street."

Like most Iraqis, al-Hakim fears insurgents are likely to step up their campaign of violence ahead of the Oct. 15 referendum on Iraq's proposed constitution.

"They're going to heat it up. I'm afraid. I've been asked by my family to leave [the country] and come back later," he added.

Draft constitution threatens to destabilize things further
The draft constitution, designed to unite the country's Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations, now threatens to further destabilize Iraq, no matter which way it goes.

It's doubtful that Sunni Arabs — the minority  group that once ruled the country under Saddam Hussein and fears domination by the rival Shiites — would peacefully accept the constitution's approval, but rejection could throw the political process back a year and complicate America's exit strategy.

Either outcome is likely to fuel the insurgency and many fear sectarian violence will grow.

Saying he is "optimistic," President Jalal Talabani has called on all Iraqis to support the draft constitution. "For sure there is no book that is perfect and cannot be amended except the holy Koran," he said.

But Talabani may be too hopeful. Several leading Sunni political organizations are campaigning heavily to defeat the constitution. Having dominated Iraq for decades under Hussein and prior rulers, Sunni influence has essentially disappeared in the new Iraq and they fear the new constitution will formalize their reduced role in Iraq's new government.Meanwhile, Sunnis have increasingly complained of abuse as U.S. and Iraqi forces pursue insurgents.

And in his clearest call yet for a civil war, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, declared "all-out war" on the country's Shiite Arab majority earlier this month.  His statement was released on an al-Qaeda Web site the same day 14 car bombs, half of them detonated by suicide attackers, exploded across Baghdad, killing more than 150.

Situation not getting any better
In anticipation of pre-vote violence, U.S. and Iraqi troops have been stepping up security. In Baghdad, new checkpoints now block many roads. Drivers are forced to get out of their cars as soldiers inspect them for explosives.

In parts of the heavily Sunni Anbar province in western Iraq, frightened families watch as troops enter their homes and rifle through their personal belongings in search of insurgents and bomb-making materials.

Still, despite the massive U.S. military presence in Iraq, and President Bush's claims that American forces are constantly adapting their tactics to deal with the strategic changes by their enemies on the ground, each night Iraqis — and often Americans — are left counting their dead and wounded.

The insurgents have employed a range of deadly tactics, some sickenly devious. A suicide attacker lured a crowd of day laborers to his minibus by offering work before blowing it up, killing 114 Iraqis on Sept. 14, in what was the bloodiest single day in Iraq since Saddam's ouster.

And an attack this week marked the first known strike by a female suicide bomber. On its Web site, al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility, hailing the woman they called Sister Karima as a "blessed sister." She disguised herself in a traditional robe and headscarf, usually worn by Iraqi men, to cover explosives as she lined up outside a security checkpoint in the northern city of Tal Afar.

The blast did not discriminate, killing at least five Iraqi civilians. The result: Security forces now face another challenge, having to focus their attention on both men and women as potential attackers.

Still optimistic
Back in Baghdad, though, filmmaker al-Hakim has high hopes and grave concerns for his country's future. "I will be optimistic after the December elections (when Iraqis vote on a new government) if the new government is strong," he says. At the same time he complains that Iraqi badly needs to implement strict anti-terrorism laws.

As for his future — and despite constant worried phone calls from loved ones in the U.S. — he has decided to stay in Iraq through the referendum. "All my friends are here," he explains. "You can't just leave them. You can't."