BAGHDAD – Whenever he leaves his home, Mohammed Jabar, a Sunni Muslim, carries his cellphone so his family can find out quickly whether he is safe if a deadly bomb attack hits. Shukria Mahmud, another Sunni, rarely ventures from her house because of the rash of violence that is gripping Iraq.
Laith Hashim, a young Shiite Muslim, is considering moving away from Iraq if security continues to disintegrate. Such a breakdown, he fears, would spark a new round of bitter sectarian fighting of the kind that brought the nation to the brink of civil war just a few years ago.
Tensions simmer between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite communities, yet they share an increasingly widespread despair. Al-Qaida-style attacks are on the rise, faith in the government's ability to keep people safe is on the wane and a fatalistic acceptance of a life of fear is perniciously settling in.
Nine years after the U.S. led an invasion of Iraq that overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein — purging the leadership and military of his supporters and leading to a fight against insurgents in a bloody guerrilla war that left more than 100,000 dead — Iraq's outlook is increasingly bleak in summer 2012.
Instead of a Western-style democracy functioning in peace and cooperation, what's been left behind is dysfunctional and increasingly violent. Many of the attacks of the past month have targeted Shiites on annual religious pilgrimages, raising fears of a return to the deadly cycle of destructive violence between Sunni and Shiite communities.
"The Sunnis should be warned that there will be retaliation if the attacks against Shiites continue," Hashim, 18, said Wednesday in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. The impoverished area in the capital's northeast is home to the Shiite Mahdi Army militia that battled al-Qaida during Iraq's darkest days between 2006 and 2008.
"Patience can't last forever," he warned.
Iraqi officials and experts say worries of an impending blowup is exactly what Sunni extremists linked to al-Qaida are banking on. Dozens of bloody bombings and drive-by shootings that have killed 286 people over the past four weeks, including 11 on Wednesday, bear the terrorist network's hallmarks. Most of the victims have been Shiite pilgrims, security forces and government officials — three of al-Qaida's prime targets.
So far the surge in violence has fallen well short of open warfare. Iraqis fear it's more likely they're destined to struggle through years of misery without fully hitting bottom, before things get much better.
Part of the problem is the dysfunctional Iraqi government that, so far this year, has failed to protect its public or settle internal power squabbles.
"We do not have the right to think about the future, because nobody is sure whether he is going to stay alive even for the next few minutes," said Jabar, 22, a hotel employee in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. "We might die anytime and anywhere, so it is useless to think about what will happen for the years ahead."
Several people interviewed across Iraq on Wednesday said there's no doubt their lives have gone downhill recently, and hope for improvement is waning.
"We used to say that tomorrow will be better than today," said Firas Hadi, 41, a Shiite who owns car accessory shop in Baghdad. "But today, we say today is better than tomorrow."
Mahmud, 57, the Sunni woman, said the violence has made her think twice about going outside, although "we have to leave every once in a while to get some fresh air." Walking with her niece in the Sunni-dominated Mansour neighborhood in Baghdad, she observed, "We can't just stay home forever."
What's worrying about Iraq's recent wave of attacks is how they've increased in frequency and size. In the months before U.S. troops left, extremists were still launching large-scale attacks that killed dozens every few weeks, but analysts said they needed the time in between to coordinate and gather explosives.
A relative drop in the number of attacks in recent months had raised cautious hopes that life might inch back toward normal, despite political struggles, the corruption and an administration that can't even provide more than a few hours of electricity each day in the capital.
But starting in June, no more than three days passed without a major attack, showing the insurgency's ability to regroup more quickly. Experts say the extremists may have been emboldened by the government's obvious distraction by feuding between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his political rivals among Sunnis, Kurds and some other Shiite politicians who complain he is amassing too much power in his own hands.
Iraqis, certainly, mince no words in blaming their leaders for the violence.
"The security situation will be improved only when the politicians stop their daily fighting over personal ambitions," said Qassim Salman, 65, a Shiite who owns a video arcade in the southern city of Basra.
Whatever the cause, the surge in violence has rekindled a gloomy sense among Iraqis — a feeling that nine years later, the Americans have moved on, and they are left facing an immediate future of grinding violence.
"This is not a normal life. How long do we have to live in fear?" asked Fuad Karim, 63, a Shiite who runs a laundry in Baghdad's Kazimiyah neighborhood.
Karim opposed the U.S. invasion, but he also said the American pullout, completed Dec. 18, was a mistake.
"They messed up the country, and they had to reorganize it and to rebuild what they demolished," he said. "Right up until now, nothing has been rebuilt."
Others, like Baghdad shopkeeper Ali Izzat, a Sunni, said he's happy the Americans are gone. "They were occupiers, and we see them as oppressors."
Izzat isn't fazed much by the recent attacks, though he allowed it might be because he's seen so much worse: His shop in Baghdad's mostly Sunni Harthiya neighborhood damaged by bombs three times in 2007.
"We feel sorry for the victims, of course," he said, when asked if Iraq's bloody past month worries him, displaying his innate sense of pessimism: "But because of all we have seen in the past, we are almost used to it."
Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad, Nabil al-Jurani in Basra, Iraq, and Yahya Barzanji in Kirkuk, Iraq, contributed to this report.