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 attack on Saturday last week, many of them Shiite pilgrims walking by on their way to a shrine.
No one has claimed responsibility, but there is little doubt al-Qaeda’s local franchise is to blame. Suicide bombers and car bombs are its calling cards, Shiite civilians among its favorite targets.
Al-Qaeda has come roaring back in Iraq since US 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-Qaeda’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. UN figures show 712 people died violently in Iraq that month, at the time the most since 2008.
The monthly death toll has not been that low since September saw 979 killed.
Al-Qaeda does not have a monopoly on violence in Iraq, a country where most households have at least one assault rifle tucked away. Other Sunni militants, including the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, which has ties to members of Saddam Hussein’s now-outlawed Baath party, also carry out attacks, as do Shiite militias that are remobilizing as the violence escalates.
Yet al-Qaeda’s indiscriminate waves of car bombs and suicide attacks, often in civilian areas, account for the bulk of the bloodshed.
The group earlier this year renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, highlighting its cross-border ambitions.
It is playing a more active military role alongside other predominantly Sunni rebels in the fight to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and its members have carried out attacks against Syrians near the porous border inside Iraq.
The US believes the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is now operating from Syria.
“Given the security vacuum, it makes sense for him to do that,” said Paul Floyd, a military analyst at global intelligence company Stratfor who served several US Army tours in Iraq.
He said the unrest in Syria could be making it even easier for al-Qaeda to get its hands on explosives for use in Iraq.
Al-Qaeda 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 al-Baghdadi has issued orders calling for 50 attacks per week, which if achieved would mark a significant escalation.