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 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 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 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.
The raid in Hawija sparked clashes and a spate of other attacks, mostly targeting Sunni mosques, that killed at least 56 people on Tuesday. Raids by Sunni gunmen on army checkpoints broke out in the hours after the protest camp raid and continued into Wednesday..
Sunni tribesmen also battled soldiers throughout Wednesday in the town of Suleiman Beg, about 95 miles north of Baghdad. Four soldiers and 12 others, including gunmen, were killed.