BAGHDAD – Al-Qaida has come roaring back in Iraq since U.S. 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.
Recent prison breaks have bolstered al-Qaida’s ranks, while feelings of Sunni marginalization and the chaos caused by the civil war in neighboring Syria are fueling its comeback.
“Nobody is able to control this situation,” said one man, who watches over a Sunni graveyard that sprang up next to the hallowed Abu Hanifa mosque in 2006, when sectarian fighting threatened 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-Qaida 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 remobilizing as the violence escalates.
But al-Qaida’s indiscriminate waves of car bombs and suicide attacks, often in civilian areas, account for the bulk of the bloodshed.
At least 42 people were killed in new wave of bombings in mostly Shiite-majority cities on Sunday.
The group earlier this year renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, highlighting its cross-border ambitions. It is playing a more active military role alongside other predominantly Sunni rebels in the fight to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, and its members have carried out attacks against Syrians near the porous border inside Iraq.
The United States believes the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is now operating from Syria.
“Given the security vacuum, it makes sense for him to do that,” said Paul Floyd, a military analyst at global intelligence company Stratfor who served several U.S. Army tours in Iraq. He said the unrest in Syria could be making it even easier for al-Qaida to get its hands on explosives for use in Iraq.