Security inside Iraq is unraveling at an alarming pace, and al Qaeda terrorists there aren't just pulling the thread; they're setting it on fire.
More than 1,000 Iraqis were killed in bombings and shootings last month, making July the deadliest month since violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims peaked from 2006 to 2008, the United Nations says.
On Thursday, gunmen stormed a policeman's home in Tikrit and killed him, his wife and their three children. When neighbors later approached the house, a nearby car bomb exploded and killed eight people -- a noted al Qaeda tactic, though the terrorist group has not claimed responsibility for the attack.
In the past week alone, more than 85 Iraqis have been gunned down or blown up.
"We are certainly seeing a rise of al Qaeda in Iraq," said Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Jessica Lewis, a research director at the Institute for the Study of War, said in a recent report that al Qaeda in Iraq is "now setting the terms of battle in Iraq for the first time since 2006."
Iraq's slide toward chaos began in the aftermath of the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops, who had mostly secured the country after its eruption of sectarian violence.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, predominantly Sunni extremists, has claimed responsibility for scores of deadly attacks in its long-running efforts to disrupt the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Its insurgency is part of a trend in which the global terrorist network's affiliates have asserted themselves throughout the Arab world.
This week, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the American consulates in the Iraqi cities of Basra and Erbil were among more than two dozen U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East, Asia and Africa that were closed because of concerns about an imminent terrorist attack. The facilities in Iraq reopened Monday.
"The growing Sunni rebellion in Iraq has fueled the resurgence [of al Qaeda in Iraq], as has the fact that the U.S. isn't there providing intelligence, backstopping the Iraqi security forces or continuing to train and keep up their skill levels," said Kenneth Katzman, an analyst of Middle Eastern affairs at the Congressional Research Service.
An Iraqi Embassy spokesman in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
The deteriorating security in Iraq comes as no surprise to Middle East observers and analysts. Retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, when he commanded U.S. operations in Iraq, predicted such a decline when he testified before Congress in September 2007, saying that a "premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences."
Gen. Petraeus testified that "a rapid withdrawal would result in the rapid deterioration of local security initiatives, Al Qaeda-Iraq regaining lost ground and freedom of maneuver, a marked increase in violence and further ethno-sectarian displacement and refugee flows, alliances of convenience by Iraqi groups with internal and external forces to gain advantages over their rivals, and exacerbation of already challenging regional dynamics, especially with respect to Iran."
U.S. forces withdrew quickly from Iraq in December 2011 after Washington and Baghdad failed to reach an agreement on the legal status of American troops in the country.
Mr. Katzman said that joint security assistance programs later lapsed because the Iraqi government appeared unwilling to meet any of the U.S. conditions to keep them going.
"The Iraqis thought they could handle security themselves and that they did not need U.S. tutelage anymore," he said.
Meanwhile, the level of violence has increased steadily since January.
On April 23, security forces in the northern city of al-Hawijah killed dozens of Sunnis protesting the policies of Mr. al-Maliki, who increasingly has aligned his government with Iran's Shiite-dominated theocracy. The crackdown sparked a surge in al Qaeda recruitment.
Al Qaeda in Iraq's ranks also swelled after as many as 800 militants -- including some terrorist leaders on death row -- escaped July 21 from a prison in Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad. The militants who freed the prisoners included suicide bombers.
"The prison break was a major blow, suggesting not only that [al Qaeda in Iraq] has enough manpower, but it also has the ability to train, plan, move around undetected and use weaponry," Mr. Katzman said. "It is a very serious example of how [al Qaeda] now has much more freedom of action than they did when the U.S. was militarily present in Iraq."
Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has made rescuing imprisoned militants a priority of his "Breaking the Walls" campaign he announced in an online speech a year ago. He also vowed that his group will retake control of territory in Iraq, according to the Institute for the Study of War.
A return of the 'surge?'
Of Iraq's 32 million people, about 60 percent are Shiite and 32 percent are Sunni, with the remainder practicing Christianity or other religions.
"The fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources," Gen. Petraeus testified in 2007. "This competition will take place, and its resolution is key to producing long-term stability in the new Iraq. The question is whether the competition takes place more -- or less -- violently."
The so-called surge of U.S. troops in 2007 helped quell sectarian tensions, and by the time the last American troops withdrew in 2011, al Qaeda in Iraq had been degraded significantly.
The group's founder, Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian, was an opponent of Osama bin Laden during the war in Afghanistan, but "it became politically convenient to almost franchise his movement," Mr. Cordesman said. Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike on June 7, 2006.
"You have seen [al Qaeda in Iraq] absorb elements that have almost nothing to do with the classic bin Laden ideology. They have simply been Sunni opposition to Shiite and Kurdish elements within Iraq, and they've reached out and established ties to similar movements inside Syria," Mr. Cordesman said. "But there is no question that it is still using the name al Qaeda. It is still an extremist group and the level of violence has been steadily growing."
Al Qaeda in Iraq has joined forces with Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, a U.S.-designated terrorist group in Syria that is fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
An analysis by the security consulting firm Soufan Group noted that "the legacy of U.S. involvement in Iraq could be threatened and Iraq transformed into a new haven for al Qaeda militancy" if al Qaeda in Iraq reignites sectarian conflict and destabilizes the al-Maliki government.
"The return of Sunni-Shiite sectarian warfare in Iraq would also significantly cloud President Obama's foreign policy legacy," it said.
The violence could draw U.S. troops back into Iraq.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has recommended sending U.S. military trainers to help build Iraqi security forces' capabilities.
But Maria Fantappie, a Baghdad-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the Iraqi government must find its own solutions.
"This is not a moment to ask for U.S. help, but to look at solutions," Ms. Fantappie said. "A good starting point would be for the government to negotiate cease-fires with Sunni local officials in relevant provinces. Cooperation with local officials and tribes and support from the local population are the best way to reduce the appeal of armed groups and improve security."
The Maliki government's marginalization of its Sunni political rivals has fueled the insurgency.
The top Sunni in the predominantly Shiite government, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, was sentenced to death in absentia last year after a court found him guilty of operating death squads. Mr. al-Hashemi fled Iraq and accused Mr. Maliki of conducting a witch hunt.
"If the United States had left [Iraq] and you had a national unity government, you wouldn't have seen the same tribes that turned on al Qaeda gradually come to support it again because of the tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, and the Sunni fears that they were being exploited by a Shiite government that didn't really care to try to create a political structure that would give the Sunnis at least the proper share of the money and political power," Mr. Cordesman said.