Scores of people were slain Monday in a string of attacks across Iraq, only two days after an Al Qaeda affiliate declared it was launching a new campaign to reassert itself.
More than 100 people were killed by bombings and shootings across the country, making it the deadliest day in Iraq in two years, according to the Associated Press. The wave of attacks included car bombings and an assault on an Iraqi military base that reportedly killed more than a dozen soldiers.
The Islamic State of Iraq, an Islamist group linked to Al Qaeda, was widely believed to be behind the assaults, though it did not immediately claim responsibility on Monday.
In a speech disseminated on extremist forums Saturday, its leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, said the group had stayed strong and was becoming stronger. He called on its fighters to free Muslim prisoners and chase down and kill "their butchers," according to a monitoring service.
He praised Syrian rebels for rising up against President Bashar Assad and urged them to seek a Syrian state under strict religious law. He claimed that the United States had failed in an assault on Islam and warned that more attacks were on the way.
"Our war with you has only begun, so wait," he said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters the attacks were cowardly and "particularly reprehensible during this holy month of Ramadan."
There are growing fears that Al Qaeda and its affiliates could capitalize on the turmoil in neighboring Syria. The Iraqi foreign minister warned earlier this month that Al Qaeda fighters were flowing from Iraq into Syria, seeing the uprising against Assad as a battle for oppressed Sunni Muslims. Israel and Jordan are especially fearful that chemical weapons stockpiled by the Syrian government could fall into the hands of extremists if the country grows even more unstable.
Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Max Boot argued that the devastating death toll shows that the U.S. should not have pulled its troops out. "It's not out of control yet, but it's certainly moving in a dangerous direction," he said. "The U.S. is basically AWOL."
The idea that the U.S. should have stayed in Iraq longer remains hotly disputed. Far from preventing such attacks by keeping troops in place, the U.S. actually planted the seeds of sectarianism during the war, said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
"This would have happened if the U.S. pulled out earlier or in another 10 years," Bennis said. "What we left behind in Iraq was raw sectarian identity that is playing out in absolutely brutal ways."
Tensions between Sunnis and Shiites have risen in Iraq as the Shiite-led government has accused one of its top Sunni officials on terrorism charges. Sunnis increasingly lament that they have been sidelined by the government.
"Al Qaeda is trying to push Iraq to the verge of Shiite-Sunni war," an Iraqi official told Reuters, asking not to be named. "They want things to be as bad as in Syria."
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: An Iraqi soldier looks at the burning shell of a car, one of a series of car bombs targeting army and police patrols in Kirkuk and the towns of Tuz Khurmatu and Dibis on Monday. Credit: Marwan Ibrahim / AFP/Getty Images