Violence had dropped markedly throughout Iraq in late 2008 and early 2009 -- prompting the U.S. military to withdraw soldiers from urban areas and hand over security there to Iraqi government troops.
But since the beginning of June, just ahead of the security handover, there has been a proliferation of coordinated bomb attacks. And most have targeted Shi'ite Muslims.
The violence has prompted fears that Al-Qaeda or other militants are trying to reignite the sectarian violence that swept the country in 2006 and 2007 -- leaving tens of thousands of people dead and pushing the country to the brink of civil war.
Indeed, the latest wave of violence goes beyond the Shi'ite neighborhoods of Baghdad. Coordinated bomb attacks have decimated Shi'ite worshippers emerging from mosques after Friday Prayers in and around the capital -- including a mosque frequented by followers of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Markets in Shi'ite neighborhoods have been attacked. Shi'ite pilgrims have been targeted. Unemployed Shi'ite men have become victims while queuing up in the hope of finding work -- leaving stunned survivors asking why.
"People were gathering here to earn their living," said one Shi'ite Iraqi who survived a recent suicide bomb attack. "What did these people do to deserve this? Can God accept this?"
The worst of the recent attacks occurred on August 10 when two truck bombs exploded within minutes of each other before dawn in the mostly Shi'ite village of Al-Khazna. Many of the 40 killed and 155 injured at Al-Khazna, to the east of Mosul, had been sleeping when the explosions caused their homes to collapse.
‘Be Prepared For Attacks’
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'a, told Iraqi military forces this week that the attacks were an organized attempt to undermine a political process that is beginning to bear fruit.
"The success that we have achieved should further boost our efforts, our will, and our resolve," Maliki said. "But it should not make us relax or be conceited over what we have achieved, because the enemy is still there and there are still many who oppose the successful process and who might be planning more attacks -- especially now that we are on the threshold of a new and decisive era in building the country and in the whole political process of the upcoming parliamentary elections."
Maliki is also warning Iraqi security forces to be prepared for more attacks.
"There will be increasing attempts to damage and violate national security," Maliki told Iraqi military leaders. "They will try in any way they can to give the impression that the political process is unstable. You have seen some of the silly attacks here and there. But God willing, with your effort, determination, and will -- and by using all abilities, forces, and intelligence information -- we will be able to chase cells underground and deny them a safe environment for planning and implementing further attacks."
Maliki appears to have had some success in preventing retaliatory attacks by Shi'ite militia groups by bringing once-violent Shi'ite fighters into the political process and into Iraq's security forces.
Many analysts say Iraqi Shi'a are indeed showing restraint because of the control Shi'a now have over the central government in Baghdad -- the first time in modern history that power has been in the hands of Iraqi Shi'a, who make up some 60 percent of Iraq’s population.
Experts conclude that a sectarian war between Sunni Arabs and Shi'a would undermine the progress toward democracy that has been made in recent years. And that would undercut the gains that Shi'a have made in recent years on controlling political power in the Iraq.
The Shi'a's spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has also been an important factor. He has forbidden violent reprisals by his followers. Other Shi'ite clerics and politicians have followed that lead, urging their followers not to retaliate against the fierce campaign of apparent sectarian bombings.
Militias ‘Lying Low’
Adel Darweesh, political editor of the London-based "Middle East Magazine," says Shi'ite militants may indeed be showing strategic restraint -- for now. On the other hand, he suggests, the recent violence against Shi'a could be the start of a more ominous territorial battle between rival militia factions.
"One [possibility] is that some militia have been lying low -- like Muqtada al-Sadr's militia or other militia -- and are waiting until they get the chance to pounce on the situation and try to establish their authority," Darweesh says.
But on the other hand, Darweesh continues, “it could very much be the beginning of a turf war. The militias that would be doing this turf war would want to establish who is the boss [in an area] by frightening the civilians and frightening the various institutions to clear off. That is a real worry because something similar to that happened in Lebanon back in the 1970s and it started a civil war."
Darweesh says he would not go so far as blaming Sunni militias for the violence. He also says he is very skeptical about claims that Al-Qaeda cells are responsible for the recent attacks against Shi'ite targets in Iraq.
"I suspect there might be one or two Al-Qaeda elements. But the number of cells in Al-Qaeda is much lower than were there initially. Therefore, why would Al-Qaeda sacrifice a valuable cell in a suicide bombing?” he asks.
“If Al-Qaeda was to go out in force, they would wait until the eve of the election [in December] to disrupt the democratic process,” Darweesh says. “But there actually is nothing for them to gain now by sacrificing their people on the ground."
In the run-up to the election, much now hinges on the ability of the Iraqi leadership and Iraqi security forces to quell the violence -- whatever its cause -- before it spins out of control.