Insurgents have used the Muslim holy month Ramadan, when dawn-to-dusk fasting marks the revelation of the Koran to the prophet Muhammad, to incite one of the most violent months since the start of the Iraq war.
Thursday, a US military spokesman in Baghdad said attacks on its soldiers are up 22 percent this month, which he described as "disheartening." Ramadan ends early next week, but the US military says it does not appear to be a temporary uptick. If it continues, say analysts, it will challenge the viability of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government and cast a long shadow over the US midterm elections in November.
October is already the 10th deadliest month of the war for US forces, with 11 days to go. It is on track to be the worst month for the coalition in two years.
While Muslims traditionally believe Ramadan is a time for good actions – such as feeding the poor – that general belief reflected through the lens of jihad groups like Al Qaeda, who believe God approves of their murders, inspires them to step up attacks.
The scope of Iraqi casualties during the holy month is less clear, although suicide attacks and death-squad activity does appears much higher than in preceding months. Early this week, sectarian fighting left 100 dead in Balad, 60 miles north of Baghdad. In the northern city of Mosul Thursday, six suicide bombs killed 20 Iraqis.
In Baghdad, Iraqi deaths often result from sectarian rivalries. Walking home to break his fast Wednesday evening, a resident of Baghdad's Amal neighborhood watched as two men in masks and police uniforms hopped from a car and gunned down two shopkeepers. "Why,'' he asks? "We don't ask and they don't tell."
Reporting by the US Defense Department, cited by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, showed a ninefold increase in violent sectarian incidents and a fourfold increase in Iraqi casualties between last year's Ramadan and the end of July.
Since July, anecdotal reporting shows a mounting death toll. The Iraq Coalition Casualty website, which relies on press reports for the Iraqi death toll, shows August and September to be the two deadliest months of the war for Iraqis, with a minimum of 6,500 killed. October appears to be headed for another record.
Mr. Cordesman, the former director of intelligence assessment for the US Defense Secretary, writes in an Oct. 19 report that, "Iraq is already in a state of serious civil war, and current efforts at political compromise and improving security at best are buying time. There is a critical risk that Iraq will drift into a major civil conflict over the coming months, see its present government fail, and/or divide or separate in some form."
As the death toll rises, comparisons to the Vietnam War are appearing again. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote this week that violence in Iraq poses "the Jihadist equivalent of the Tet Offensive,'' referring to the massive North Vietnamese and Viet Cong assault that began in January 1968 and ended with few strategic gains for the North. It badly shook American confidence of ultimate victory in Vietnam, and led then-President Lyndon Johnson to abandon his reelection bid.
But the violence or structure of the Iraq war does not mirror Vietnam, note historians. In that war, organized battalions of opponents overran key US and South Vietnamese positions only to be pushed back later.
Instead, the nature of Iraq's diffuse sectarian war is not about clearing and holding territory, but much more about spreading the fear that is contributing to the cleansing of Shiites and Sunnis from each others' strongholds.
Nevertheless, President Bush did admit a Tet Offensive parallel in that the violence may have an impact on US elections.
"He could be right,'' Mr. Bush told ABC News, referring to Mr. Friedman. "There's certainly a stepped-up level of violence and we're heading into elections."
In the midst of this, many average Iraqis say they are frightened and are increasingly looking to militias for protection.
Kamal Hussein, a Shiite contractor, says he doesn't go to a job site without at least six armed bodyguards, and that his work is drying up. "I've never seen a situation like this. We have killings, people fleeing our neighborhoods, joblessness and the government has no control. They're completely failing."
He lives in the northwestern neighborhood of Shoala, a Shiite outpost surrounded by Sunni neighborhoods where the Mahdi Army of militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr holds sway. While he acknowledges they're a party militia, he says their presence at gas stations and street corners is welcomed by many residents of the area. "The government is talking about forcing them to disarm. But we're surrounded by terrorists. If they pull out, we're finished."
Indeed, the growing popularity of groups like the Mahdi Army, widely blamed by Sunnis for running some of the capital's most violent sectarian death squads, some of which appear to have infiltrated the police forces, is a major part of the security challenge.
On Wednesday, US forces arrested top Sadr aide Sheikh Mazen al-Saedi and five of his lieutenants, describing him as "the alleged leader of a murder and kidnapping cell" in Baghdad. But Thursday, after 5,000 Sadr supporters protested on the street, Prime Minister Maliki, a Shiite Islamist whose election hinged on support from Sadr, ordered the men released.
Upon his election, Mr. Maliki had promised to take swift action to disarm Iraq's militias, and US officials at the time said they were convinced he was sincere.
Amidst the backdrop of increasing violence, a reconciliation conference between Shiite and Sunni religious leaders is scheduled to be held in Saudi Arabia Friday. A similar meeting between the sect's leading politicians is scheduled to be held in Baghdad in early November, though that meeting has already been postponed twice.
Most Iraqi's appear skeptical that such talks will yield concrete results. "They're talking about a reconciliation conference, but it's of no use when it's clear that Iraqis now are following the interests of parties, or of their own desires, rather than the national interest," says Mustafa Rahim, a primary teacher in west Baghdad. "We have a weak and reactive government, not one with clear proposals or strategy. And that's allowing outside countries to carve up the country for their own interests."