Violence has been on the rise since the U.S. pulled out its troops.
KIRKUK, Iraq — With the sun still rising in the Iraqi sky, a man climbs out of bed.
Gathering everything he needs for his two-hour journey to work from the city where he lives, Diwaniyah, to Iraq's capital of Baghdad, he kisses each member of his family and takes a last look at them.
"When I go out in the morning for work, I kiss my family goodbye because I might not come back," said Semad Ali, a technical assistant working for a private environmental group.
Iraq has exploded with violence this year. On Tuesday, a new wave of car bombs rocked commercial streets in the Iraqi capital, part of a series of attacks across the country that left 31 dead.
The suicide attacks, bombings and death tolls rival those of the worst months of the Iraq War in 2007, when Sunni-backed al-Qaeda terrorists and Shiite militias were killing each other in huge numbers in city streets.
That violence decreased substantially after the troop surge policy of President George W. Bush, which flooded regions with thousands of troops and set conditions for free elections and a coalition government.
But violence began rising a few months after President Obama ordered all U.S. troops out of Iraq by December 2011. Shiite and Sunni Muslims have clashed over government policies, and the civil war in neighboring Syria has pitted Sunnis against Shiites as well.
This year, almost 5,000 people have been killed and another 12,000 injured in Iraq, according to the United Nations. This level of violence has not been seen since 2006 and 2007. Attacks this past week killed more than 100 people as car bombs exploded in Shia areas of Baghdad and elsewhere.
Iraqi authorities are resorting to ordering huge numbers of cars off of the roads, and are bulldozing soccer fields and even building a moat around one city to keep out car bombs.
"The U.S. decision to withdraw its forces from Iraq by the end of 2011 was clearly one factor in al-Qaeda in Iraq's rebound, since it removed a devastatingly effective arrangement of intelligence assets, Special Forces and aerial strike teams," says Michael Knights, a fellow for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"This gave the movement the ability to coordinate again, resulting in increased multicity strikes."
Threats have already been made against Shia Muslims living in the Ninewa province in northern Iraq, bordering Syria. At the end of August, the Twitter feed of pro-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a group of militant extremists linked to al-Qaeda, showed posters, which said: "We are avenging our Sunni brothers … leave now or face death."
Meanwhile, extortion has become common in the capital of the region, Mosul.
"There cannot be any businesses operating in the city without them (the businesses) paying a fixed share to the armed groups," said Saeed, who did not want his real name used because he said that if it were known he was talking to a reporter, "they would kill me." "People have lost their lives for refusing to pay this money."
Saeed said there was an "absence of mutual trust" between residents and police — something he blames on corruption, inexperience and poor training and a factor making it easier for al-Qaeda to flourish there, analysts say.
"There has been little progress on the political front in Iraq, and al-Qaeda is banking on dissatisfaction with the government to increase their flexibility in large swaths of land in western Iraq, neighboring Syria," said Hayder Al-Khoei, associated fellow at the MENA program at the London-based think tank Chatham House.
With such violence and deadly blasts occurring every week and showing no signs of stopping, Iraqis say they are used to living with fear.
"The proper word for what people are is hopeless," said Haithman Abid, a counselor at a hospital in Sadr City, a Shia-dominated area on the outskirts of Baghdad. "When there's an explosion in Sadr City, or elsewhere, people say you get used to it but actually this is one type of hopelessness."
Although the number of attacks dropped slightly from 1,057 in July to 716 in August, according to figures released by the United Nations, Jacqueline Badcock, deputy special representative of the U.N.'s secretary-general for Iraq, said that "the impact of violence on civilians remains disturbingly high."
While Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced a new security operation in August, named "Revenge of the Martyrs," which officials say has resulted in a number of arrests in Sunni areas on the outskirts of Baghdad, analysts say such initiatives may not be enough.
"Al-Maliki's response to the deteriorating security situation may have been successful in some respects — the seizure of significant weapons caches, the killing of senior al-Qaeda militants and arrests of suspected terrorists. But these short-term gains may eventually be outweighed in the long term if the Sunni community feels it is being targeted by the government for a crime it has not committed," Al-Khoei said.
Meanwhile, citizens are skeptical of new traffic restrictions announced last week to halve the number of cars on the road to reduce the number of terrorist attacks via car bombs. Cars will be allowed on the roads on alternate days depending on their license plate, according to Agence France Presse, the French news agency.
Knights said there are signs that the most senior Iraqi politicians recognize the need to calm sectarian tensions, if only to ensure their own political futures. He says the United States can help that end through diplomatic pressure toward reconciliation between warring parties, and pressuring the government to fully fund Iraq's counterterrorism units.
Washington should also lean on Iraq to grant local authorities in Sunni-minority areas more power to handle local affairs.
"Iraq cannot kill its way out of the current security crisis," he said. "The wider strategy requires Iraqi political decisions that undermine the radicals through compromise."
Abid said he is planning to move away from Baghdad and to the semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north of Iraq, an area that boasts relative stability and where he hopes he can escape the bloodshed he has seen both directly and through the eyes of his patients.
"This is not the normal thing when you see people dying," he said. "The sense of life, they are losing this."