Iraq's Bombs of August: A Return to the Bad Old Days?

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A man walks past a destroyed truck after a double bombing tore through a Shi'ite-minority community near Baghdad

Iraq dreams of what is called sustainable peace — a qualified condition that allows life to go on with an acceptable level of tumult. And so, with a measure of bravado, the government recently announced the imminent removal of most of the concrete blast walls that separate warring neighborhoods and protect citizens traveling on main and secondary roads. As it tries to put the bad days of Sunni vs. Shi'ite violence behind it, Baghdad is rewarding post-sectarian behavior, giving $2,000 to couples who marry outside their sect — an incentive for Sunni-Shi'ite nuptials — in an effort to construct a social metaphor for national unity.

All this is occurring as the U.S. officially withdraws its military forces from the big cities, a preamble for its eventual departure from the country in 2011. U.S. officials have warned that insurgents would try to sneak in parting shots. And the shots have been explosively loud. Early Monday morning, simultaneous truck bombs killed more than 30 people, injured more than 130 and demolished dozens of homes in a village near Mosul where the residents belong to the Shabak religious minority; 44 were killed on Aug. 7 in a suicide truck bombing outside a Shi'ite Turkoman village in the same area. The attacks are in Kurdish-controlled areas of Mosul and appear to be aimed at straining the already tenuous peace between Kurdish and Arab Iraqis (the Shabak, for example, have a strong affinity for the Kurds). The northern city remains a strong base for al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups, with the insurgents demanding protection money from companies and construction firms doing business in the city.

Baghdad was not spared on Monday. At least 20 were killed by nine bombs that were planted in trash, on the side of a road, in cars and in a minibus. Many of the dead were day laborers on a tea break at a construction site as well as residents of both Sunni and Shi'ite neighborhoods. Despite the mayhem, Baghdad's citizens aren't so sure that al-Qaeda has the strength to bring the country to near civil chaos, as it did in 2006-07. Iraqis are beginning to believe that the Islamist radicals of al-Qaeda are too weak to coordinate the massive attacks of the past, and certainly not in Baghdad. But others appear to be picking up the slack. The Sunni Ahdamiya neighborhood used to see Shi'ite reprisal attacks for al-Qaeda killings. Nowadays, violence is constant though relatively lulled — and most of it, say locals, is perpetrated by political parties that have militia forces and are not shy about using arms against their rivals. The parties, of course, mostly form along sectarian lines. On July 31, five Shi'ite mosques in Baghdad were attacked. The next day it was a Sunni mosque.

The blast walls, says businessman Abu Nour, 35, should not be taken down. The national elections, scheduled to take place in five months, will only add to the dangers, he says. "I believe that violence will increase before the parliamentary elections, and I think that the party which will not find a base or do not find people to vote for them would work to make violence," he says. The government, he adds, does not have enough resources to protect its citizens. Hussam, a cashier at a bustling restaurant in another part of town, agrees with Nour's assessment. There will be violence as the country tries to figure out who controls the national legislature, he says, but it will not be the same as the old Sunni-Shi'ite vendettas. Says Hussam: "It will be a political party conflict." Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said as much after Monday's bombings, appearing on TV to warn citizens of pre-election violence.

Hussam's Blue Sky Restaurant is almost a counterpoint to the explosive nature of day-to-day security in Baghdad. Blue Sky stands in front of a minimall that sells clothes and toys on busy Rubaie Street, the main drag of the mixed-sect, middle-class Zayuna neighborhood. Reflecting on the news, Hussam is impressed by the drop in Iraqi fatalities: just 240 deaths in July 2009, an 86% drop from the same month in the bad year of 2007. "It's a large difference," Hussam says. "Better than two years ago." The paint in his restaurant is bright and fresh. Meanwhile, young couples dine while flat-screen TVs blast modern Arabic music videos. It's almost easy to be relaxed. But then my companion and translator whispers in my ear, warning me not to speak English and to try to blend in for my safety — and for his.

With reporting by Nizar Latif and Eman Hamed / Baghdad and Serage Malik / Mosul