Spike in violence in Iraq has echoes in the past

BAGHDAD – More than a year after the U.S. military left Iraq, the country is reeling from its most sustained violence since 2008. Over the last two months more than 1,700 people have been killed, raising fears the country is sliding back into chaos.

The current mayhem began with a wave of protests by Sunnis alleging neglect and mistreatment at the hands of the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki. Violence has risen steadily since an April 23 crackdown by security forces on a Sunni protest in the northern city of Hawija.

Conflict between Iraq’s two main religious communities sounds ominously like the explosion of sectarian hatred unleashed by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime and propelled the Shiites to power.

Adding to the tension is the civil war in neighboring Syria, where Sunni rebels are seeking to topple Bashar Assad’s government, dominated by a spinout of the Shiite faith and backed by Shiite powerhouse Iran.

But the Iraq of 2013 is different from the country seven years ago. The Shiite government is more firmly entrenched in Baghdad. The Sunnis are divided and weakened from setbacks they suffered in the last sectarian war.

Violence is on the rise but far short of the levels when death squads roamed the streets.

Clearly, many Iraqis are still worried.

“I see no solution on the horizon in a country that is full of political and sectarian disputes,” said Ali Abdullah, who has blocked parking in front of his mobile phone store in Baghdad’s sprawling Shiite district of Sadr City to protect against car bombs.

Mohammad Majeed, a Baghdad businessman in the mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood of Jihad, is considering fleeing the country.

“Terror is returning to us,” Majeed said. “I survived the first round. I don’t want to take my chances with a second one.”