BAGHDAD - With Sunni gunmen beginning to confront the Shiite-led government's security forces head-on in northern and western Iraq, fears are growing fast of a return to full-scale sectarian fighting that could plunge the country into a broader battle merged with the Syrian civil war across the border.
With more than 100 people killed over the past two days, it's shaping up to be the most pivotal moment for Iraq since U.S. combat troops withdrew in December 2011.
"Everybody has the feeling that Iraq is becoming a new Syria," Talal Younis, the 55-year-old owner of a currency exchange in the northern city of Mosul, said Wednesday. "We are heading into the unknown. ... I think that civil war is making a comeback."
A burning Iraqi army military vehicle near the demonstration site in Ramadi, Iraq, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday. Protesters threw stones on a military convoy that was passing near the protest site in Ramadi, one army Humvee was flipped over and the soldiers opened fire on the fire, then they left, the protesters set fire on the abandoned army vehicle.
A crackdown by government forces at a protest site in the northern town of Hawija on Tuesday triggered the latest unrest. It has enraged much of the country's restive Sunni Arab minority, adding fuel to an already smoldering opposition movement and spawning a wave of bold follow-up clashes.
It is too soon to say whether the rage will lead to widespread insurrection in the largely Sunni cities of Mosul and Ramadi or, more significantly, spiral into open sectarian warfare in the streets of Baghdad.
The Iraqi capital is far more tightly controlled by security forces than the remote towns hit by the latest unrest, but insurgents continue to launch regular, well-coordinated waves of attacks inside Baghdad. Outright threats that all but disappeared as the last bout of sectarian fighting waned in 2008 are making a comeback too, like the leaflets signed by a Shiite militant group that began turning up on the doorsteps of Sunni households in Baghdad earlier this year.
The exact circumstances of the Hawija bloodshed remain murky, but there is outrage over the government's handling of the unrest and the fact that most of the 23 killed at the site were among the Sunni demonstrators.
Talal al-Zobaie, a Sunni lawmaker, described this week's events as a pivotal moment for the country.
"The crime in Hawija clearly shows that people have lost faith in their armed forces, which have been turned into a tool in the hands of the prime minister," he said. "Some people now think that the only way to protect themselves is to take up arms."