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Bombs strike favoured Ramadan hangouts in Iraq

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    Iraqi Muslim men prepare food before breaking their fast during Ramadan, in Baghdad, July 17, 2013. Young Iraqis often spend evenings in cafes after fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but a string of bombings against the popular hangouts means doing so now carries deadly risk. (AFP)

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    Showers are set-up along a street in Baghdad as temperature soar during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, on July 15, 2013. (AFP)

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    Iraqi Muslim men wait before breaking their fast, in a meal known as Iftar, inside a tent dedicated to cooking and eating during Ramadan in Baghdad, July 17, 2013. (AFP)

Young Iraqis often spend evenings in cafes after fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but a string of bombings against the popular hangouts means doing so now carries deadly risk.

In past years, Amer Issam met friends at a Baghdad cafe after iftar, the meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast, but he has stopped doing so out of fear for his life.

"I do not want to turn into a Facebook picture passed on by friends," he said, referring to images of young men killed in cafes shared by mourning friends or relatives on social media sites.

Iraqis often gather at cafes in the evenings during Ramadan to drink tea, smoke water pipes or play games including Mheibis, in which two teams compete to find a ring hidden in the hand of an opposing team member.

People also go to cafes to watch football matches they cannot see at home due to lengthy power cuts or lack of a subscription to the necessary satellite channel.

But deadly bombings that have struck cafes in recent weeks have kept many of the people who might have spent an evening out shut in their homes instead.

"Our business has decreased by 50 to 60 percent compared to Ramadan last year," said Anwar Mohammed, who owns a cafe in Baghdad.

"The people who used to come here to eat and to smoke now prefer to ... take their orders to their house," because "they are afraid to sit in the cafe," he said.

Ali Adnan, who lives in the Dura area of south Baghdad, also noticed a lack of cafe patrons while waiting to meet friends.

"I went to a cafe in Baghdad and I found only four people," he said.

While he waited for his friends to arrive, the four people left, leaving him alone. He soon decided to depart as well.

The attacks on cafes include a bombing earlier in July near a cafe in Baghdad in which nine people were killed and 35 were wounded, and another suicide bombing in the north Iraq city of Mosul that left six people dead and 21 wounded.

But the deadliest was in the northern city of Kirkuk, where a suicide bomber detonated explosives in a crowded cafe, killing 41 people and wounding 35.

"While people were gathered in this cafe, a fat man entered ... and we didn't hear anything except 'Allahu Akbar' (God is greatest), and then everything was destroyed," said Ahmed al-Bayati, who was wounded in the leg by the blast.

Young men had come to the cafe to play Siniyah, a game popular in Kirkuk during Ramadan that is similar to Mheibis, in which teams compete to find a ring hidden under cups, Bayati said.

"The cafe was targeted ... because it combines all the components of Kirkuk," which is home to a diverse religious and ethnic mix, said Jawdat Abdullah al-Bayati, who lost two of his brothers in the blast.

After the bombing, police told cafe owners to shutter their establishments until further notice, to prevent more such attacks.

Some Kirkuk cafes have since reopened, but with additional security measures by security forces and the cafe owners themselves.

The attacks on cafes are part of a surge in violence that has killed more than 2,700 people so far this year, striking all aspects of daily life, from mosques and markets to football fields and shops.

"Targeting the cafes aims to spread panic in the community and cause the largest (possible) amount of human losses, as the cafes are an easy target," said Ali al-Haidari, an Iraqi expert in security and strategic affairs.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Haidari said he believes that Al-Qaeda's local branch carried them out in "an attempt to increase popular anger against the government".

But despite the danger posed by bombings, a number of young men still go to cafes, one of the few places they can gather at night.

"We're not 100 percent happy sitting here. We're worried. But we just say to ourselves, 'Whatever happens is in the hands of God,'" Jilan Ali, a civil engineer, said at a Baghdad cafe.