Muslims in Iraq are preparing to observe the holy month of Ramadan for the third time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. But few people believe the period of fasting and prayer will take place in an atmosphere of peace.
Grocery stores in Baghdad bustled with shoppers on Monday, eager to purchase as much food as they can before the start of Ramadan.
Set to begin early this week, Ramadan is the Islamic period of spiritual cleansing and Muslims observe it by praying and fasting during the day. But at sundown, they break their fast with an elaborate meal called iftar, which is traditionally shared with family and friends throughout the evening.
At one grocery store, VOA found Seena Mohammed Ali busily filling a large plastic bag with lentil beans, which she says she will use to prepare soup and other dishes for iftar.
But the deeply religious 30 year-old Shi'ite school teacher says Ramadan is no longer a month she looks forward to.
Ms. Ali notes that for the past two years, insurgent attacks spiked just before and during Ramadan. Last year, a suicide bombing in Baghdad killed dozens of people on the eve of Ramadan. During Ramadan the year before, suicide car bombers struck the headquarters of the International Red Cross and several police stations in the capital, leaving more than 50 people dead.
The schoolteacher says she fears that two major events scheduled to take place during this year's Ramadan will do nothing but increase the risk of more terrible bloodshed.
Ms. Ali says the national referendum on the draft constitution on the 15th and the start of the trial of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein on the 19th are certain to cause insurgents to escalate their activities.
The draft constitution and Saddam's trial are both opposed by the country's Sunni Arab minority, who form the bulk of Iraq's insurgency.
Many Sunni Arabs are upset that the draft constitution grants the country's Shi'ite Muslims and Kurds significant authority to set up semi-autonomous zones in oil rich areas in the north and south, leaving little for Sunni Arabs in the middle of the country.
Sunni Arabs are also largely against trying former Sunni dictator Saddam, whom they say will be denied a fair trial in Iraq because Shi'ites and Kurds, who were long oppressed by Saddam, want revenge, not justice.
Moreover, Ramadan is to begin just a few weeks after the Sunni Arab, al-Qaida-linked extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi called for an all-out war against Iraqi Shi'ites. The wave of violence that followed Zarqawi's declaration has killed more than 200 people in the past nine days.
Forty-nine year-old Baghdad businessman Arshad Salim says he, too, is deeply concerned about the prospects of more violence to come. He says he is taking his family to spend Ramadan in neighboring Jordan.
"I think Islam and all of the other religions of the world believe in the abc's of humanity - not to lie, to be honest in doing your job, to love people as you love yourself. Of course, the biggest portion of all these extremists is ignorant of the realities of Islam. They are going to express this attitude during the month of Ramadan,'Since it is a holy month in Islam, we have to shed more blood than in other months.' This is an ignorant, silly way of thinking," he said.
The threat of increasing violence is having an effect on how Iraqi Muslims plan to spend their evenings during the holy month. Instead of visiting friends and remaining outdoors late into the night, many Iraqis say they will spend quiet evenings at home and pray for a more peaceful Ramadan next year.