As dusk draws near during the holy month of Ramadan, the streets of Baghdad are normally filled with people shopping for sweets, snacks and supplies for the iftar, the sunset meal at which Muslims break their daylong fast.
But on the first day of Ramadan here Saturday, shopping centers were gloomily empty of people. Instead of buying treats, Iraqis were staying close to home and contemplating the scary reality, in the wake of two devastating bombings last week, that their country may no longer be on a path toward greater stability.
"Everyone is worried this Ramadan," said grocery store owner Issam Sabri, who reported having few customers all day. "Before these attacks, we were feeling satisfied and safe, but in our hearts now there is fear that anything could happen suddenly."
Before the bombings, which killed nearly 100 people and wounded more than 500 others, Iraq had been on track to mark the most peaceful Ramadan since 2003, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. military.
Now the country is embarking on the holy month amid a building sense of national crisis and fear that more violence lies ahead.
Although Iraqis are accustomed to near-daily explosions, last week's attacks on two government ministries and other targets have shattered faith on multiple levels and fed suspicion that the root of the violence may go beyond the usual suspects.
The attacks have exposed deep failings on the part of the Iraqi security forces, which assumed responsibility from U.S. troops in June. They have demonstrated the resilience of an insurgency that many had believed was on the road to defeat. And they have stirred deep fear that competing factions within Iraq's ruling elite, assisted by other countries in the region, may be at least partially responsible for a slow increase in violence in recent weeks.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who has been widely criticized for prematurely trumpeting the successes of his security forces, appeared on state television Saturday to say that his government was doing everything in its power to combat terrorism.
"I assure the Iraqi people that the security forces are still capable of their job, and will achieve further victories despite these occasional shortcomings," he said.
But Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari offered an indirect rebuke to Maliki's confidence with a stark warning that more such attacks probably will occur, amid indications that the security forces have been infiltrated by militants.
"We must name names, and stop these statements and attitudes which are too optimistic," he said Saturday at a news conference in one of the few unscathed rooms at the heavily damaged ministry. "We must tell the whole truth to the people, that for a while there has been a clear security deterioration, and that what is coming will be greater than what has gone before."
Zebari said he thought it likely that the suicide bombers, who drove water trucks packed with tons of explosives into the center of a capital where such trucks are banned, had inside help from government security forces.
"Definitely there must have been some assistance, some tolerance," he said. "Those who executed the operation were helped by others. They had security and logistics assistance."
U.S. commanders say they are encouraged that recent bouts of violence, including bombings targeting Shiite Muslims that appear clearly designed to ignite sectarian warfare, have not revived the tensions that led to open warfare on the streets of Baghdad from 2005 to '07. This year, for the first time in a decade, Sunnis and Shiites observed the start of Ramadan on the same day.
More worrying to ordinary Iraqis is the suspicion that mainstream political parties jockeying for power are implicated in the violence.
Maliki has accused extremists affiliated with the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq and the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party of being responsible, and he reiterated claims by a government spokesman that an insurgent cell linked to Baathists had already been detained, though such claims previously have proved to be premature.
The U.S. military says it believes that at least some of the recent attacks have been linked to internal Iraqi political dynamics, with the worrying implication that some of the parties competing for power in January's national elections may be directly responsible for at least some of the violence on the streets.
The military is still inclined to blame Al Qaeda in Iraq for the most spectacular attacks, but "inside the cities there are definitely some that are politically motivated," the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. Ray Odierno, told journalists two days before the ministry bombings. "It's parties internal to certain coalitions that are forming and are trying to gain influence over one another. There might be an attempt to influence some of the coalitions."
This view is widely held among Iraqis, who remember only too well that most of the major parties in their parliament and government played a big role in the sectarian violence.
The attacks coincide with intense political pressures on Maliki to contest the next election as part of the broad Shiite coalition that propelled Shiites to power in 2005.
Efforts to revive the coalition are being led by the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which is also seeking to lure the movement affiliated with anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr back into the fold.
Maliki, however, has sought to form his own coalition that would include Sunni partners. And it is he who has most to lose from a breakdown in security because he has staked his reputation on being the prime minister who oversaw the sharp reduction in violence after the buildup of U.S. troops in 2007.
But if Maliki's political rivals are hoping the resurgence of violence will harm the prime minister's electoral prospects, they may be disappointed.
On the streets of Baghdad, there is little inclination to blame Maliki for the shortcomings of his government or the security forces.
Rather, the prime minister is seen as an embattled figure, who all too often is thwarted in his efforts to do good by the incompetence of those around him.
"He can't do everything by himself. He's working alone and the people around him don't help," Nebras Saad, 21, said as he stood in his empty sweets shop beside platters full of syrupy baklava, which normally would sell briskly during Ramadan.
"Maliki is a good guy, but can you name for me one good minister?"
Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Usama Redha contributed to this report.