Iraqis look to future of fear

Qassim Salman, 65, a Shiite Muslim said Wednesday, “The security situation will be improved only when the politicians stop their daily fighting over personal ambitions.” Salman owns a video arcade in Basra.

BAGHDAD — Whenever he leaves his home, Mohammed Jabar, a Sunni Muslim, carries his cellphone so his family can find out quickly whether he is safe if a deadly bomb attack hits. Shukria Mahmud, another Sunni, rarely ventures from her house because of the rash of violence that is gripping Iraq.

Laith Hashim, a young Shiite Muslim, is considering moving away from Iraq if security continues to disintegrate. Such a breakdown, he fears, would spark a new round of bitter sectarian fighting of the kind that brought the nation to the brink of civil war just a few years ago.

Tensions simmer between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite communities, yet they share an increasingly widespread despair. Al-Qaida-style attacks are on the rise, faith in the government’s ability to keep people safe is on the wane and a fatalistic acceptance of a life of fear is perniciously settling in.

Nine years after the U.S. led an invasion of Iraq that overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s outlook is increasingly bleak in summer 2012.

Instead of a Western-style democracy functioning in peace and cooperation, what’s been left behind is dysfunctional and increasingly violent. Many of the attacks of the past month have targeted Shiites on annual religious pilgrimages, raising fears of a return to the deadly cycle of destructive violence between Sunni and Shiite communities.

“The Sunnis should be warned that there will be retaliation if the attacks against Shiites continue,” Hashim, 18, said Wednesday in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood. The impoverished area in the capital’s northeast is home to the Shiite Mahdi Army militia that battled al-Qaida during Iraq’s darkest days between 2006 and 2008.

“Patience can’t last forever,” he warned.

Iraqi officials and experts say worries of an impending blowup is exactly what Sunni extremists linked to al-Qaida are banking on. Dozens of bloody bombings and drive-by shootings that have killed 286 people over the past four weeks, including 11 on Wednesday, bear the terrorist network’s hallmarks. Most of the victims have been Shiite pilgrims, security personnel and government officials — three of al-Qaida’s prime targets.

So far the surge in violence has fallen well short of open warfare. Iraqis fear it’s more likely they’re destined to struggle through years of misery without fully hitting bottom, before things get much better.

Part of the problem is the dysfunctional Iraqi government that, so far this year, has failed to protect its public or settle internal power squabbles.

“We do not have the right to think about the future, because nobody is sure whether he is going to stay alive even for the next few minutes,” said Jabar, 22, a hotel employee in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. “We might die anytime and anywhere, so it is useless to think about what will happen for the years ahead.”

Several people interviewed across Iraq on Wednesday said there’s no doubt their lives have gone downhill recently, and hope for improvement is waning.

“We used to say that tomorrow will be better than today,” said Firas Hadi, 41, a Shiite who owns car accessory shop in Baghdad. “But today, we say today is better than tomorrow.”