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Al-Qaida surges in Iraq, resurrecting old fears

Women walk past the aftermath of a car bomb attack in the mainly Shiite neighborhood of Zafaraniyah in southeastern Baghdad, Iraq. 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 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 maintain an atmosphere of chaos that weakens the Shiite-led government’s authority. AP photo

Women walk past the aftermath of a car bomb attack in the mainly Shiite neighborhood of Zafaraniyah in southeastern Baghdad, Iraq. 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 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 maintain an atmosphere of chaos that weakens the Shiite-led government’s authority. AP photo

BAGHDAD — First came the fireball, then the screams of the victims. The suicide bombing just outside a Baghdad graveyard knocked Nasser Waleed Ali over and peppered his back with shrapnel.

Ali was one of the lucky ones. At least 51 died in the Oct. 5 attack, many of them Shiite pilgrims walking by on their way to a shrine. No one has claimed responsibility, but there is little doubt al-Qaida’s local franchise is to blame. Suicide bombers and car bombs are its calling cards, Shiite civilians among its favorite targets.

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 Ali, who watches over a Sunni graveyard that sprang up next to the hallowed Abu Hanifa mosque in 2006, when sectarian fighting threated 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.

At least 42 people were killed in new wave of bombings in mostly Shiite-majority cities on Sunday.

Iraqi officials acknowledge the group is growing stronger. Al-Qaida has begun actively recruiting more young Iraqi men to take part in suicide missions after years of relying primarily on foreign volunteers, according to two intelligence officials. They said the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has issued orders calling for 50 attacks per week, which if achieved would mark a significant escalation.

One of the officials estimated that al-Qaida now has at least 3,000 trained fighters in Iraq alone, including some 100 volunteers awaiting orders to carry out suicide missions. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to disclose intelligence information.

A study released this month by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said al-Qaida in Iraq has emerged as “an extremely vigorous, resilient, and capable organization.”

The group “has reconstituted as a professional military force capable of planning, training, resourcing and executing synchronized and complex attacks in Iraq,” author Jessica Lewis added.

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