Behind the numbing regularity of Iraq's car bombs is the much quieter sound of a country slowly imploding.
The targets these days aren't usually the fortress-like government ministries or security installations -- they are regular Iraqis. On Sept. 20, bombs exploded in a Sunni mosque near Samarra, killing at least 15 people. The attack capped a week of violence that also saw at least 30 people killed on Sept. 17 in coordinated bombings that targeted Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad still mourning the victims of previous attacks. The bombers intended to cause the maximum number of casualties -- detonating their explosives at the end of the day, when Iraqis crowd into markets and cafes.
More than 4,000 civilians have been killed so far this year, the highest death toll since Iraq climbed out of civil war five years ago. Any wreckage is now quickly hauled away, as the government in Baghdad has little capacity for forensic investigations. In many neighborhoods, the black funeral banners draped over brick walls and concrete blast barriers are the only lasting signs of repeated explosions. Apart from civilians, hundreds of soldiers and police, as well as officials from the Interior and Justice ministries, have been killed.
Many of these attacks are the handiwork of al Qaeda, which has made clear that it intends to foster a civil war in Iraq. The jihadi group's targeting of markets, cafes, and mosques seems aimed at showing Iraqis that government security forces can't protect them -- potentially pushing them into the arms of the Shiite militias and Sunni extremists who were at the forefront of sectarian violence during the worst days of Iraq's civil war.
"We are at war with al Qaeda," says Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan. Other government officials point a finger at a wider array of suspects, such as former Baathists and regional powers, who they say are trying to destabilize Baghdad's Shiite-led government.
Iraqis have survived worse than the latest rise in attacks -- multiple wars, occupation, and the recent brutal civil war. But the latest violence, coupled with a seemingly permanent political crisis and rampant corruption, is bleeding the country of its vast potential.
"Iraqi society is breaking apart," says Uday al-Rubaiee, 24, who dreams of more than working in an office and bracing for the next attack. He said many of his friends, expecting that their country is in store for far worse, are leaving Iraq. "This is the biggest loss. We can't dream of prosperity anymore."
At the Baghdad International Airport, where a few years ago companies took up a collection to keep the air-conditioning running, a largely cosmetic makeover has polished some of the terminal's rougher edges. But perched on the vinyl seats, amid the security contractors and businessmen, are families clutching documents in plastic bags with the logo of the International Organization for Migration, which continues to ferry Iraqis to refuge abroad, a decade after the U.S. invasion.
More than 2 million Iraqi refugees have left the country since 2003. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis still reside within Iraq but are unable to return to their homes -- and they may not be able to do so for some time, as the United Nations is warning of renewed efforts at sectarian cleansing in some communities.
The Iraqi government says security has been weakened by the conflict in Syria. The raging civil war there has given a boost to al Qaeda, allowing it to send foreign fighters and suicide bombers across the porous border in numbers not seen since the jihadi movement's heyday in Iraq.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say up to 30 suicide bombers a month have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq since early summer, many of them from North Africa and the Persian Gulf states. Iraq is so afraid of Sunni extremist forces that it has built fortified barriers along its border with Syria and has closed the two main crossings with Syria for more than a year. It's a stark reversal from the past decade, when Syria took in more than a million Iraqis during the height of the sectarian violence.