BAGHDAD – More than a year after the U.S. military left Iraq, the country is reeling from its most sustained violence since 2008. Over the last two months more than 1,700 people have been killed, raising fears the country is sliding back into chaos.
The current mayhem began with a wave of protests by Sunnis alleging neglect and mistreatment at the hands of the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki. Violence has risen steadily since an April 23 crackdown by security forces on a Sunni protest in the northern city of Hawija.
Conflict between Iraq's two main religious communities sounds ominously like the explosion of sectarian hatred unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime and propelled the Shiites to power.
Adding to the tension is the civil war in neighboring Syria, where Sunni rebels are seeking to topple Bashar Assad's government, dominated by a spinout of the Shiite faith and backed by Shiite powerhouse Iran.
But the Iraq of 2013 is different from the country seven years ago. The Shiite government is more firmly entrenched in Baghdad. The Sunnis are divided and weakened from setbacks they suffered in the last sectarian war.
Violence is on the rise but far short of the levels when death squads roamed the streets.
Clearly, many Iraqis are still worried.
"I see no solution on the horizon in a country that is full of political and sectarian disputes," said Ali Abdullah, who has blocked parking in front of his mobile phone store in Baghdad's sprawling Shiite district of Sadr City to protect against car bombs.
Mohammad Majeed, a Baghdad businessman in the mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood of Jihad, is considering fleeing the country.
"Terror is returning to us," Majeed said. "I survived the first round. I don't want to take my chances with a second one."
Two AP Chiefs of Bureau in Baghdad, past and present, paint a picture of what it was like then and how things have changed.
By ROBERT H. REID
It began with fierce fusillades — rapid bursts of gunfire aimed wildly, designed to drive people from the streets as much as to kill. The killing would come soon enough.
In rapid succession, and with military precision, gunmen set up checkpoints along the major streets in west Baghdad's religiously mixed Jihad district, while black-clad Shiite youths strung barbed wire along side streets.
As a blistering sun sent temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, gunmen bearing lists of names roamed house-to-house, taking away fighting-aged men. Some were never seen again. Others were found lifeless in the streets.
At the checkpoints, motorists were hauled from their cars and shot dead if they were found with ID cards identifying them as Sunnis.
By sunset on July 9, 2006, at least 41 people, mostly Sunnis, were dead, according to police. The U.S. military insisted it could only account for 14 deaths. The next day, two bombs exploded in a Shiite neighborhood, killing 10 people in what appeared to be payback.
Whatever the numbers, the Jihad massacre was emblematic of the cold-blooded savagery of Iraq's sectarian conflict, which raged from early 2006 until 2008 and transformed the character of the eight-year Iraq war.
In the month of July 2006 alone, at least 2,708 Iraq civilians were slaughtered, according to a Pentagon count released in 2010. Some at the time estimates put the civilian death toll that month at nearly 3,270. By contrast the U.S. and its international coalition allies lost 43 troops.
As the war entered its third year, the conflict morphed from a straightforward fight between U.S.-led troops and the mostly Shiite Iraqi forces on one hand and Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida on the other into a wave of uncontrolled slaughter and terror in which civilians were the main target.
It became a Shiite-Sunni fight for power — with members of the U.S.-backed government surreptitiously involved. Longtime neighbors became mortal enemies based on their religious affiliation alone.
Ground zero was Baghdad and a handful of other religiously and ethnically mixed cities. In those battlegrounds, fear paralyzed daily life, even as people attempted to work or shop or attend school beneath the shadow of sudden and violent death. Streets of once-thriving neighborhoods turned into ghost towns, either largely abandoned or with residents cowering at home in fear.
Panic swept through families when loved ones were late returning from work. Hearts pounded when motorists were stuck in traffic. Did the driver in the next lane look like a would-be car bomber? Was the checkpoint manned by soldiers or militiamen from a rival sect?
Many Sunni families feared venturing to Baghdad's main morgue to claim bodies of loved ones because the area was controlled by Shiite gunmen. In February 2007, the Shiite deputy health minister was arrested for allegedly running death squads, using ambulances for kidnapping and funneling money to Shiite militias. Charges were dismissed a year later amid allegations of witness intimidation. Now that former official, Hakim al-Zamili, is a member of parliament.
Forgers did a thriving business selling forged ID cards bearing fake names identified with a particular sect — Omar in case the gunmen were Sunnis, Ali or Hussein if the threat came from Shiites.
Armed men roamed the streets in a deadly cat-and-mouse game with overstretched American soldiers and Iraqi forces — some of whom were in collusion with sectarian militias. American spokesmen argued vehemently against any suggestion that Iraq had descended into civil war.
Car bombs and roadside explosives still claimed victims. But much of the mayhem occurred at night and in silence.
Nighttime was when death squads — many believed directed by the Shiite-led Ministry of Interior — hunted for their victims. Their often mutilated bodies were left on the streets or vacant lots for all to see as dawn rose.
Other victims were dumped into the Tigris River. Their bodies would turn up southeast of the capital near Kut, trapped in underwater nets set up to collect vegetation that can clog the waterway.
How many died because of religion and how many fell victim to common criminals or personal vendettas? No one really knows. In the calculus of barbarity, the Americans came up with their own formula: anyone shot in the head was a victim of sectarianism. Bullets to the torso were deemed the work of common criminals.
By ADAM SCHRECK
Fast forward seven years to 2013.
The once-pervasive American troops and armored vehicles are gone. Baghdad neighborhoods are patrolled solely by the Iraqi police and army, which still draw heavily from the Shiite majority that controls the levers of power. At some of their posts, banners bearing the image of Shiite saint Imam Hussein wave proudly — a not-so-subtle affirmation of the security forces' sectarian loyalties.
Traffic-clogging checkpoints still block streets lined with concrete blast walls, although many of the barriers have been removed. The car bombings and roadside explosives deployed primarily by Sunni extremists never really went away. It is only their frequency that goes up and down.
They're up sharply these days, with multiple blasts rocking Baghdad and other cities nearly every day.
Iraq again feels at an ominous turning point, even if the tallies of the dead are a fraction of what they were at the height of the bloodshed. A United Nations count said April was the deadliest month since June 2008, with 712 Iraqis killed in violent attacks. That total was surpassed in May, with the UN reporting 1,045 dead.
As recently as a few months ago, there was a feeling of optimism in many parts of Baghdad despite the threat of indiscriminate bloodshed. Parks filled with families out picnicking on holidays, car sales were booming and shiny new restaurants were opening.
But the relentless pounding of violence has brought a renewed sense of terror to the Iraqi capital. In an apparent attempt to thwart car bombings, authorities have imposed a sweeping ban on cars with relatively common temporary license plates, affecting large numbers of commuters.
Fewer people are venturing out on the streets, and businesses are pulling down the shutters earlier than usual.
The late-night televised press conference called by the Sunni finance minister, Rafia al-Issawi, to denounce a raid on his office by security forces back in December seemed at first like the latest in a series of moves that have sidelined prominent Sunnis in the Shiite-led government.
In hindsight, it was the trigger that reignited suppressed Sunni rage and would send masses of protesters into the streets of cities like Ramadi, Fallujah, Samarra and Mosul — former insurgent strongholds that had been flashpoints in the U.S.-led battle to exert control over the country.
As the Sunni protest movement gathered steam, so did the sectarian tensions.
Some among the demonstrators in Sunni-dominated Anbar province waved al-Qaida flags — symbols of Sunni supremacy — and chanted that those with the distinctively Shiite name Abdul-Zahra would not be allowed into the province.
Back in Baghdad's Jihad neighborhood, overt threats not seen in years made a comeback. Leaflets left outside Sunni households warned recipients to leave or face "great agony." They were signed by the Mukhtar Army, a new Shiite militant group with ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
Early on the morning of April 23, Iraqi security forces faced off against an energized group of Sunni protesters, some wielding swords, in the northern town of Hawija. A gunbattle eventually broke out.
By the time it was all over, at least 20 among the protesters were dead along with three soldiers. The Sunni deputy prime minister leading an official government probe into the incident puts the number of protesters killed at more than 40. Human Rights Watch said photos it obtained suggested some demonstrators had their hands bound and had been killed execution-style.
The violent reaction was swift.
Gunmen tried to overrun towns and army posts near Hawija. Bombs exploded outside of Sunni mosques and worshippers leaving others were felled by gunfire.
Iraqi officials believe more militant groups are joining Sunni jihadists like al-Qaida in attacks against Shiites and symbols of government authority. The attacks on Sunni holy sites, meanwhile, have killed more than 100 people since Hawija, raising the possibility that Shiite militias are getting involved in tit-for-tat attacks.
Reid, currently Chief of Bureau for Germany, Austria and Switzerland, has covered Iraq since 2003 and can be followed at http://twitter.com/rhreid. Schreck has been Chief of Bureau in Baghdad since 2012 and can be followed at http://twitter.com/adamschreck.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.