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Adam Schreck , Published October 14 2013

Al-Qaida surging back in Iraq

BAGHDAD – 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 Oct. 5 attack, many of them Shiite pilgrims walking by on their way to a shrine. No one has claimed responsibility, but there is little doubt al-Qaida’s local franchise is to blame. Suicide bombers and car bombs are its calling cards, Shiite civilians among its favorite targets.

Al-Qaida has come roaring back in Iraq since U.S. 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.

“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.

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. United Nations figures show 712 people died violently in Iraq that month, at the time it was the most since 2008.

The monthly death toll hasn’t been that low since. September saw 979 killed.

But al-Qaida’s indiscriminate waves of car bombs and suicide attacks, often in civilian areas, account for the bulk of the bloodshed.

At least 42 people were killed in new wave of bombings in mostly Shiite-majority cities on Sunday.

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 Assad, and its members have carried out attacks against Syrians near the porous border inside Iraq.

The United States 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 U.S. Army tours in Iraq. He said the unrest in Syria could be making it even easier for al-Qaida to get its hands on explosives for use in Iraq.

“We know Syrian military stocks have fallen into the hands of rebels. There’s nothing to preclude some of that stuff flowing across the border,” he said.

Al-Qaida 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.

One of the officials estimated that al-Qaida now has at least 3,000 trained fighters in Iraq alone, including some 100 volunteers awaiting orders to carry out suicide missions. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to disclose intelligence information.

A study released this month by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said al-Qaida in Iraq has emerged as “an extremely vigorous, resilient and capable organization” that can operate as far south as Iraq’s Persian Gulf port of Basra.

The group “has reconstituted as a professional military force capable of planning, training, resourcing and executing synchronized and complex attacks in Iraq,” author Jessica Lewis added.

Iraqis, both Sunni and Shiite, say they are losing faith in the government’s ability to keep the country safe.

“Al-Qaida can blow up whatever number of car bombs they want whenever they choose,” said Ali Nasser, a Shiite government employee from Baghdad. “It seems like al-Qaida is running the country, not the government in Baghdad.”