Iraq begins holy month of Ramadan with deadly first week

Attacks across country recall days of insurgency

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BAGHDAD — Ramadan this year is shaping up to be the deadliest in Iraq since 2007, when 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 at least 169 Iraqis just seven days into the Islamic holy month, the most in the first week of Ramadan for six years.

There seems to be little pattern in the targets, adding to unease in what is meant to be a month of spiritual growth and generosity.

Several victims died at a busy northern teashop while playing mehebis, a game whose players win sweets by guessing who on the 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, 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, 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.

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.

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.