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In Baghdad, dread growswith death toll

A string of devastating attacks targeting Shiites has residents fearing a return to the sectarian warfare seen in 2006-2007. The planned U.S. military pullback is adding to concerns.

May 02, 2009|Liz Sly

BAGHDAD — The crowds at the restaurants are thinning out. Parents have started to escort their children to school again. And cellphones are ringing more often than usual, with family members checking in just to ask, "Are you OK?" or "Is everyone safe?"

After a string of high-profile bombings and other attacks that killed 355 Iraqi civilians and security personnel and 18 U.S. troops last month nationwide, a pall has descended upon Baghdad, a lowering storm cloud swirling with echoes of the darkest days of Iraq's civil war.

Above all, there is a sense of dread, rooted in the terrifying possibility that the calm that had brought the capital back to life over the last 18 months might have been just a lull.

"I feel a shadow of danger on the horizon, that the old days are coming back again," Nidal Shahar, 36, said as she watched her children play in a nearly empty park along the Tigris River that would normally be crowded with families in the early evening hours. "It's like we're seeing the early phases again of the sectarian war."

It is still too early to declare an end to the hard-won security gains of late 2007, achieved after the U.S. troop buildup, the Sunni Awakening revolt against insurgents and the cease-fire declared by Shiite militias. Iraqi officials say they are confident that Iraqi security forces can cope after the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. forces from Baghdad and other cities by June 30. The U.S. military says it has no plans to delay the pullback.

Entire neighborhoods that had been in the hands of insurgents have been brought under government control. Militias have been driven from the streets in a largely successful campaign by enhanced Iraqi security forces. The dumping of mutilated bodies by the dozens on city streets has become a thing of the past. And although the death toll rose in April, the numbers pale in comparison with November 2006, when 3,462 Iraqis died in violence, according to the United Nations.

According to the U.S. military, the number of attacks remains low. What has changed, officials say, is that insurgents appear to be trying to grab headlines by causing a large number of casualties. In the worst of the recent attacks, two suicide bombers killed 71 people among crowds of pilgrims at Baghdad's main Shiite shrine.

"We are concerned . . . but if you look at the trend lines, there's no significant increase in the number of attacks per week. The type of attack has become more high-profile, but the number of attacks remains relatively small," said Col. John Robinson, spokesman for the Multinational Corps in Iraq. "They're high-profile to create the perception that there's more activity than there really is."

Moreover, said chief spokesman Maj. Gen. David Perkins, the Al Qaeda in Iraq militants believed responsible for the attacks cannot seem to sustain the relentless pace of bombings that characterized the insurgency a few years back.

The goal of the attacks, mostly targeting Shiites, appears to be to provoke "ethno-sectarian violence" of the kind that raged in Baghdad in 2006-07, which hasn't happened. "They may have accomplished their task, which is to kill lots of innocent civilians, but they haven't accomplished their purpose," Perkins said.

But with the bombings clearly aimed at causing maximum casualties among Shiite civilians, and with U.S. forces scheduled to withdraw from Iraq's cities by the end of next month, people wonder how long it will be before Iraqis start taking matters into their own hands again.

"Worse is coming," predicted Atheer Mohsin, 18, a street vendor who lives in the Shiite area of Shula. "There will be more explosions and the militias will come back, and then the sectarian killings will start again. It will be like before, the Mahdi Army will control one area, another militia will control the next, and so on."

He, like many Iraqis interviewed in Baghdad, is worried about the consequences of the scheduled U.S. pullback. "They should only go when the Iraqi government is strong, and it's not strong enough yet," Mohsin said. "This is not the right time for them to withdraw."

The anxiety on the streets is palpable. At the riverfront Al Baghdadi tea shop, owner Munir Kadhem, 41, said his business had fallen by two-thirds in the last week. As the sun set over the banks of the Tigris, chairs that would normally be filled with customers sipping sundowner glasses of strong sweet tea were stacked high on top of tables.

"Of course when people see these random attacks, they're afraid to leave their houses," he said. "Yesterday I closed at 10 p.m. because I had no customers. Normally I stay open till 1 a.m."

Paint store owner Ahmed Shandal, 37, said he'd banned his family from making all but the most essential trips, and he calls home every hour to check on his children.

"Before these incidents, we felt free, we went to the restaurants and parks. Now they're off limits," he said, in his empty store in the shopping district of Karada. "Last year we had a respite, but now the situation is back to how it was before."

Not all Iraqis are so gloomy. "It's the terrorists' last stand," said cellphone merchant Munadil Majeed, 49, who described himself as an optimist. "We cannot deny the accomplishments that have been made so far."

At the park, Shahar said she had brought her children out despite her sense of foreboding, "because we've become used to all these explosions."

"I don't think things will get worse than before," she said. "I don't think it could be possible to see worse than what we saw before."

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liz.sly@latimes.com

Usama Redha and Raheem Salman in The Times' Baghdad Bureau contributed to this report.

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