BAGHDAD: Ramadan this year is shaping up to be the deadliest in Iraq since a bloody insurgency and rampant sectarian killings pushed the country to the edge of civil war in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Suicide attacks, car bombings and other violence have killed more than 160 Iraqis just seven days into the Islamic holy month. The death toll in the first week of Ramadan hasn't been that high since 2007, intensifying fears that Iraq is slipping back into widespread chaos.
There seems to be little pattern in the range of targets, adding to the sense of unease in what is meant to be a month of spiritual growth and generosity.
Several of those killed over the past week died at a busy northern teashop while playing mehebis, a game where players hope to win sweets by guessing who among their opposing team is hiding a ring in their hands. Others were slain as they swam with friends, or as they shopped for festive evening dinners, or made their way home from mosques after late-night prayers.
Even for Iraqis who have grown used to hearing about random violence, day after day of double-digit death tolls makes for a worrying trend.
Many are choosing to stay home after breaking their dawn-to-dusk fast rather than venture out for festive family get-togethers and late-night cafe sessions, worrying they could be among the next victims.
"Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups ... have a better ability to move around and attack targets whenever it suits them," said Qais Hameed, an engineer and father of three from eastern Baghdad who quit going to a nearby coffee shop after breaking his daily fast. "This just shows that these terrorist groups are getting stronger while our security forces are getting weaker."
The bloodshed during Ramadan is an extension of a surge of attacks that has been roiling Iraq since the spring. It follows months of rallies by Iraq's minority Sunnis against the Shiite-led government over what they contend is second-class treatment and the unfair use of tough anti-terrorism measures against their sect.
The killings significantly picked up after Iraqi security forces launched a heavy-handed crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija on April 23. A ferocious backlash followed the raid, with deadly bomb attacks and the return of sporadic gunbattles between insurgents and soldiers - this time members of the Iraqi security forces rather than U.S. troops.
Ramadan, one of the holiest periods of the Islamic calendar, appears to be following that worrisome trend. It was always a popular period for attacks during the worst days of Iraq's violence as Shiite and Sunni extremists battled each other as well as U.S. forces.
The first Ramadan following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion began with a blistering wave of suicide bombings at police stations and the Red Cross headquarters.
In the years that followed, American military commanders braced for a surge in violence during the holy month. In 2007, 934 people were killed during Ramadan, including 236 the first week, according to an Associated Press count.
But as the war wound down, so did violence during the holy month.
"Ramadan used to be a bad month (for violence), but then over recent years it became a relatively quiet month," said John Drake, an Iraq specialist for the British-based AKE security consulting firm.
But, Drake added, "it already looks like this trend is being reversed."
U.N. figures show more than 2,500 Iraqis killed and many more wounded from April through June of this year. Another 331 have died so far in July, including two policemen targeted by gunmen in and around the restive northern city of Mosul on Wednesday, according to an AP count.
In a report released this week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the scale of violence in recent months as alarming and said "rising inter-sectarian tensions are posing a major threat to stability and security in Iraq." Ban also warned that the increasingly sectarian-charged civil war raging in neighboring Syria is affecting Iraq's own political stability.
Although Iraq is officially neutral in the conflict, U.S. officials charge that it continues to allow flights suspected of carrying Iranian arms to transit its airspace. Iraqi officials have carried out some spot checks of Iranian planes and say they've found nothing. Iraqi fighters are meanwhile traveling to fight in Syria, with Shiites fighting alongside regime forces and Iraq's al-Qaida arm, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, siding with the mostly Sunni rebels.
No one has claimed responsibility for many of the terrorist attacks. But the indiscriminate and often coordinated bombings used in most of the attacks are a favorite tactic of al-Qaida, which hopes to stoke sectarian hatred and undermine Iraq's Shiite-led government.
Al-Qaida and other Sunni fundamentalists consider Shiites to be infidels. In the group's extremist ideology, acts of jihad including suicide bombings that are carried out during Ramadan are seen as more blessed than at other times of the year.
"The attackers believe that to martyr themselves during the holy month guarantees them some sort of benefit in the afterlife," said Drake, the security expert.
Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan Ibrahim agreed that militants' heightened spiritual fervor during Ramadan is partly to blame, along with the fact that large crowds often gather at soft targets such as mosques and cafes during Ramadan, giving attackers a chance to kill several people at once, he said.
A senior Iraqi intelligence official, who insisted on anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to journalists, offered a more mundane rationale.
"Security forces tend to speed up the searching process before iftar so they don't delay people who are fasting," he said, referring to the evening meal that ends the daylong Ramadan fast.
Ramadan last year also got off to a deadly start, with more than 140 killed during the first week. Unlike this year's daily drumbeat of violence, most of those died during a single dark day of attacks claimed by al-Qaida. Some days saw no deaths reported at all - something that has yet to happen this time around.