First came the fireball, then the screams of the victims. The suicide bombing just outside a Baghdad graveyard knocked Nasser Waleed Ali over and peppered his back with shrapnel.
Ali was one of the lucky ones. At least 51 died in the October 5 attack, many of them Shiite pilgrims walking by on their way to a shrine. No one has claimed responsibility, but there is little doubt al Qaeda’s local franchise is to blame. Suicide bombers and car bombs are its calling cards, Shiite civilians among its favorite targets.
Al Qaeda has come roaring back in Iraq since US troops left in late 2011 and now looks stronger than it has in years.
The terror group has shown it is capable of carrying out mass-casualty attacks several times a month, driving the death toll in Iraq to the highest level in half a decade. It sees each attack as a way to cultivate an atmosphere of chaos that weakens the Shiite-led government’s authority.
“Nobody is able to control this situation,” said Ali, who watches over a Sunni graveyard that sprang up next to the hallowed Abu Hanifa mosque in 2006, when sectarian fighting threated to engulf Iraq in all-out civil war.
“We are not safe in the coffee shops or mosques, not even in soccer fields,” he continued, rattling off some of the targets hit repeatedly in recent months.
The pace of the killing accelerated significantly following a deadly crackdown by security forces on a camp for Sunni protesters in the northern town of Hawija in April. United Nations figures show 712 people died violently in Iraq that month, at the time the most since 2008.
The monthly death toll hasn’t been that low since. September saw 979 killed. Al Qaeda does not have a monopoly on violence in Iraq, a country where most households have at least one assault rifle tucked away. Other Sunni militants, including the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, which has ties to members of Saddam Hussein’s now-outlawed Baath party, also carry out attacks, as do Shiite militias that are remobilising as the violence escalates.
But al Qaeda’s indiscriminate waves of car bombs and suicide attacks, often in civilian areas, account for the bulk of the bloodshed. The group earlier this year renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, highlighting its cross-border ambitions.
American troops and Iraqi forces, including Sunni militiamen opposed to the group’s extremist ideology, beat back al Qaeda after the US launched its surge strategy in 2007. That policy shift deployed additional troops to Iraq and shifted the focus of the war effort toward enhancing security for Iraqis and winning their trust.
Now there are fears that all the hard work is coming undone.