In early January 2006, less than a month after I arrived in Iraq as a young U.S. Army lieutenant, I witnessed my first act of violence committed against Iraqi civilians. While on a patrol on a highway 20 km south of Baghdad, a roadside bomb targeting my platoon exploded a second too late — or perhaps a second too early — in front of my vehicle and behind my wingman, tearing instead into a tiny pickup truck traveling in the right-hand lane. When I ran up to the truck, I found the driver dead, his head nearly decapitated.
It took me a few seconds to see his son slumped beside him, his tiny body torn to pieces from the bomb’s shrapnel. They must have just left a market, I thought. The boy held a crate of eggs on his lap. Despite the carnage inside the cab, the shattered glass and chunks of flesh, the two dozen eggs were untouched. Not a single one was broken.
Bombings are loud; they’re chaotic. Even small ones wreak enormous paths of destruction. But it’s the little details that remain long after the instances run together: a child’s bloody shoe, the smell of gasoline, a crate of eggs that somehow remained unharmed.
On Monday in Basra, a predominantly Shi‘ite city 420 km south of Baghdad, a bomb ripped through a group of day laborers gathered around a sandwich kiosk. A witness describing the carnage told Reuters, “One of the dead bodies was still grabbing a blood-soaked sandwich in his hand.” The bomb was one of two in that city and a dozen across Iraq in one of the deadliest days since U.S. troops left the country in late 2011. According to reports, more than a dozen bombs detonated in markets, bus stations and mosques, killing 95 people and wounding more than 250.
Monday’s bombings are just the latest in what has been a bloody spring in Iraq. According to a tally by the Associated Press, there have been 20 days with at least one car bomb or militant attack since the New Year. According to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq, 712 people died in April, the deadliest month in the country since 2008. So far, no one has taken responsibility for the most recent attacks. They come amid fears that Syria’s deadly civil war is reverberating in the wider region, as Sunni-Shi‘ite proxy wars flare up in both Lebanon and Iraq.
But the bombings in Iraq appear to be caused first and foremost by domestic sectarian and political rifts. They come after months of conflict and discord between the Shi‘ite-led government and minority Sunnis, as well as territorial disputes between the government in Baghdad and the largely self-governing Kurds in Iraq’s north.
The waves of bombings and sectarian attacks invoke memories of 2006–07 when post–Saddam Hussein Iraq devolved into a sectarian war. “You often hear people saying, Is it 2006 again?” says Stephen Wicken, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., who authors the think tank’s weekly Iraq updates. Wicken thinks Iraq’s current security situation better mirrors the early days of the U.S. occupation, when American troops were often at the center of the country’s escalating violence. “Other people are saying, No, it’s 2003 again, which is probably closer to the mark, actually, in terms of security forces acting as bullet magnets in the way that coalition forces did a decade ago,” he says.
The latest rash of sectarian strife began nearly six months ago, when the Shi‘ite-dominated government’s security forces raided the home of Sunni Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi. After al-Issawi’s arrest, antigovernment protests sprang up in Anbar, Nineveh and Salah ad-Din provinces, and converged in Ramadi, which was the scene of intense fighting for years during the American occupation.
In April, security forces clashed with protesters and Sunni gunmen in the northern city of Hawija, leaving dozens dead, most of whom were Sunni. Like many engagements, there were differing reports over who incited the violence, which led to outrage and a string of retaliatory attacks. There are claims that militant groups in Hawija baited the security forces in an attempt to force people to choose sides and push the sectarian groups back into open conflict. “The floor’s the limit, so to speak,” Wicken says of sectarian tensions following the Hawija clash. “The majority of the ways this can go are profoundly negative ones.”
While violent clashes have consumed much of the news about Iraq this spring, there are small signs of optimism amid the political turmoil. In April, the country held its first provincial elections since the U.S. withdrawal; under tight security, the polling was largely free of violence. But Iraq’s Cabinet postponed elections in Anbar and Nineveh until later this summer, they said, out of concern for security. In the provincial elections, the ruling State of Law coalition of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki won pluralities in seven of the 12 provinces where elections were held; however, al-Maliki did not win an outright majority, which means he will have to form alliances. His coalition also won fewer seats than in the 2009 elections, which means there will be political horse trading in the coming months.
The latest violence inside Iraq also comes at a time when the U.S. has little influence over al-Maliki’s government. In March, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Baghdad and urged al-Maliki to stop flights from Iran carrying arms to Syria from flying over Iraqi airspace. While al-Maliki’s government has said it takes no sides in the Syrian civil war, its interests align more closely with Iran, which supports Syrian President Bashar Assad. Even if al-Maliki wished to acquiesce to the U.S. requests, the Iraqi military hasn’t fully controlled its own airspace since the U.S. military left.
U.S. influence in Iraq, both practical and diplomatic, has declined precipitously since the final troops left the country in December 2011. Emma Sky, a British expert on the Middle East who served as political adviser to General Raymond Odierno when he commanded U.S. forces in Iraq in the later years of the war, returned to Iraq last year to see what kind of country the U.S. and its allies left behind. “Driven by an imperative to end the war, the U.S. strategy for Iraq became lost in the transition as America disengaged rather than changing the basis of the U.S.-Iraqi relationship to a nonmilitary one,” she she wrote in a commentary piece for the Center for a New American Security.
In the months since, as security in Iraq has deteriorated, Sky is pessimistic that there is a solution on the horizon. “The instability in Iraq is driven primarily by domestic politics, and secondarily by events in Syria,” she told TIME in an e-mail. “It is highly unlikely that Maliki will reach a political solution with Sunni leaders as he has deliberately sought to marginalize them.” As for the role of the U.S. in curbing the cycle of violence, Sky thinks America’s hasty disengagement hurt its chances to influence events in Iraq. America’s failure to negotiate a new security agreement “sent the message that the U.S. was no longer interested in Iraq,” she says.
As the spring gives way to summer, Wicken says it will be crucial to watch how and when the government holds elections in Anbar and Nineveh. If clashes continue, it could lead to more dire consequences. “Any situation in which there is a high level of tension and where there are people pointing weapons at each other, it’s a magnet to groups like al-Qaeda to come in and destabilize things or provoke people to go over the edge,” he says.
As Iraq faces a long, hot and potentially bloody summer, the sad likelihood is that bombings and clashes will leave more Iraqis dead and many more with memories of charred, twisted metal and blood-strewn streets. Those images will linger long after the dead are buried, omens of further violence in the months ahead.