Iraq passed a grim milestone this week as bombings and gun attacks took the total number of people killed this year to 5,500. The bloodshed is at its highest since 2008, when Iraq was emerging from a brutal Sunni-Shia sectarian war.
The wreckage is cleared from a car bomb attack on a café in southern Baghdad. Among the broken glass and rubble, pools of water from the fire trucks mix with the blood of the victims.
Across Iraq, cafes and restaurants are closing as they become targets of terror attacks.
Former regulars at the café - like Ahmed - mourn the loss of their friends, and of normal life.
Ahmed said he and his friends used to meet here to chat and laugh. He says "young people as beautiful as flowers" were killed. "Why?" he asked. "What was their guilt?"
Those are questions being asked by thousands of families across Iraq.
The spike in violence is different from that seen at the height of the Sunni-Shia conflict in 2007, said Hayder Al-Khoei, associate fellow at London-based policy institute Chatham House. “What’s happening now is not the same thing. The overwhelming majority of the violence is being carried out by al-Qaida against both Sunni and Shia Iraqis.”
And, Al-Khoei added, the response of the Shia-led government is making the situation worse. "Al-Qaida is operating in Sunni-dominated areas. The Iraqi government’s response is sweeping security measures in these areas. That’s increasing the resentment ordinary Sunnis - not al-Qaida - feel towards the government and that in itself enables al-Qaida to be even stronger.”
Iraq’s government has made another key strategic error, said Richard Kemp, former commander of British Forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “They’ve also moved away from the Awakening Councils, which were local Sunni militants who had been opposing NATO and British and American forces, and were then kind of bought off and turned around and became probably the single most effective tool of the counter-insurgency conflict that was going on," Kemp noted. "Secondly, the removal of some very effective American intelligence networks and strike capability from Special Forces and aircraft."
The civil war in neighboring Syria is exacerbating Iraq’s problems, said Hayder Al-Khoei. “It enabled Jihadists to have a transnational ambition in the region, and hence al-Qaida in Iraq officially merged with al-Qaida in Syria,: he said. "So it enabled them this flexibility and ability to maneuver.”
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited Washington last week to request U.S. assistance in countering al-Qaida.
But Iraq’s leader must take some responsibility for the political stalemate that has allowed the terror group to regain a foothold, said Kemp. “He’s spent most of his time in charge of the country accumulating power to himself and resisting the demands by the Sunnis and the Kurds to decentralize power and actually almost as critically, decentralize economic power as well,” he stated.
Iraqi lawmakers this week voted through a law paving the way for a general election next April. Officials hope it could shake-up the political deadlock and check Iraq’s dangerous slide back towards sectarian war.
Recent images from Iraq
Iraqi police help their wounded comrades after suicide bomb attacks at al-Riyadh police station in Hawija, north of Baghdad, Nov. 4, 2013.
A police officer checks papers at a checkpoint in central Baghdad, Oct. 31, 2013.
Residents gather at the site of a bomb attack in the town of Tuz Khurmatu, north of Baghdad, Oct. 31, 2013.
Baghdad municipality workers clear debris while people look at the site of a car bomb attack in the Sha'ab neighborhood of Baghdad, Oct. 27, 2013.
Women walk near the site of a car bomb at a bus station in Baghdad's Al-Mashtal district, Oct. 27, 2013.
A youth takes pictures with his mobile phone at the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad's Al-Baladiyat District, Oct. 27, 2013.
Iraqi soldiers arrest suspected militants during a raid and weapons search operation in North Babil province, Oct. 27, 2013.
Mourners grieve as the body of a bomb attack victim is taken for burial during a funeral procession in al-Amel, Baghdad, Oct. 21, 2013.