BAGHDAD (Reuters) - In an evening in late June, Yasir al-Nuaimi draped an Iraqi flag over his shoulder and headed out to watch a soccer match being shown on television at a cafe in western Baghdad. The 20-year-old told his mother to pray for his team to win.
Later that night a bomb hidden inside a grocery bag tore through the cafe where he and other football fans had gathered to watch the Iraqi national youth team play against Egypt.
One minute the men were cheering for their team and the next screaming in terror and pain, witnesses said.
“Why did they kill my young son?” Yasir’s father Ahmed said. In tears, he sat in the family home holding Yasir’s Iraqi flag, stiff with his son’s dried blood.
“He was only watching a game! They killed me and his mother too, not just him. They broke our hearts.”
Iraqis have endured extreme violence for years, but since the since the start of 2013 the intensity of attacks on civilians has dramatically increased, reversing a trend that had seen the country grow more peaceful.
Attacks have spread to some of the few places left for public entertainment, turning Baghdad into a giant fortified prison of concrete blast walls, where once again few now dare to socialize in public.
The attacks have raised fears of a return to full-blown sectarian conflict in a country where ruling Shi’ites and minority Sunni Muslims and Kurds have yet to find a stable way of sharing power.
More than 1,000 Iraqis were killed in July, the highest monthly death toll since 2008, the United Nations said last week.
The past four months have all had higher death tolls than any in the five years before April, leading the Interior Ministry to declare last week that Iraq was now once again in “open war”, 18 months after U.S. troops pulled out.
Most of the violence has been perpetrated by the Iraqi wing of al Qaeda, the strict Sunni Muslim jihadi group which was defeated by U.S. forces and their allies in 2006-2007 but has been reborn this year to battle the Shi’ite-led government.
Strict Islamists of both major sects are hostile both to sport and to cafes where women and men mix in social situations.
Sectarian tensions have also escalated as a result of the civil war in neighboring Syria, where Iraq’s al Qaeda branch has merged with a powerful Sunni Islamist rebel force fighting to overthrow a leader backed by Shi’ite Iran.
“Insurgents now are changing rules of the game,” said Ali al-Bahadli, a former Iraqi army general and military analyst who works as an adviser to the Ministry of Defense.
“With the recent attacks of cafes and football pitches, the message is directed at civilians is that security forces are unable to protect you.”
Security analysts say the Sunni insurgents are targeting cafes and football pitches as a way to undermine the Shi’ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, wrecking its claims to have restored normal life after a decade of war.
Recent bombings have targeted men playing in local soccer fixtures and watching matches, after spates of attacks on Sunni and Shi’ite mosques, markets and the security forces. According to figures from the Interior Ministry, around 37 cafes across Iraq have been attacked since April.
People have begun to avoid public places like cafes and busy markets, fearing from bombs and suicide attacks. After an easing of violence in the past few years led places to reopen, many cafes have now closed again after losing customers.
“I can endure the hardship of being without work, but I will never forgive myself if a bomb went off and killed innocent people inside my cafe,” said Haider Kadhim, a cafe owner in central Baghdad who decided to close his business down.
Going to a cafe has now become the subject of dark humor: “Don’t force me to go to a cafe”, goes the local joke, comparing a trip out for coffee to a death sentence.
“With more security measures cutting Baghdad into pieces, attacks on cafes, mosques and sport areas, we feel we’re living deadlocked inside homes,” said ceramics artist Mahir Samarrai, who used to haunt the cafes in eastern Baghdad, where men sip strong coffee, puff on water pipes and discuss the day.
Amateur football players are also targets, with dozens killed in recent months.
“I used to play football and enjoy hanging out with friends, but now my parents would punish me if they knew I’m still playing in secret,” said 22-year-old Hussain Abid-Ali, from Sadr City, a vast, poor Shi’ite district in northeast Baghdad.
His mother has even taken to hiding his training shoes to prevent him from playing at the neighborhood pitch.
“Our eyes are focusing more on what is going on outside the pitch rather than on the ball,” he said. Last time he played, the teams fled the pitch in horror after hearing a blast.
The Interior Ministry has stepped up security near soccer pitches, cafes and mosques to try to prevent more attacks.
The cafes are not only targeted by the bombs of the Sunni insurgency, but are also under pressure from smaller hardline Shi’ite militias, who try to close them by force.
The Shi’ite militias, who warn of practices they see as going against their strict interpretation of Islam, were also behind a campaign targeting alcohol sellers in Baghdad which killed 12 people in May.
The militias have been emboldened by the success of Shi’ite religious parties which have risen in power since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Last month, a militia group attacked several cafes in central Baghdad. Attackers accused the businesses of employing female waitresses to also work as prostitutes or for selling drugs. Cafe owners and customers denied this, saying the militia were simply looking for excuses to shut them down.
One squabble turned into a deadly attack when militiamen tried to break into a cafe.
“Suddenly the front window was smashed and I heard angry men shouting: ‘Bring the prostitutes or we will set the whole cafe ablaze,’” waitress Zena said. The single mother, who gave only her first name, said she was working as a waitress to survive.
She hid inside a disused toilet stall during the gun attack in which a cafe worker and a militiaman were killed, according to police sources.
“I was scared to death,” Zena said. “What am I guilty of? I’m working to feed my girl. Is this a crime, somebody tell me, please?”
Interior Ministry officials said the attack was carried out by “militia acting above the law”. Prime Minister Maliki gave an unusual direct statement on the incident, saying the attackers were arrested.
“The government will not tolerate militias and gangs that violate freedom of people in order to impose their corrupted opinions under various pretexts,” he said on his website.
Editing by Sylvia Westall and Peter Graff