BAGHDAD — An Iraqi sheik cradled his grandson's tightly wrapped body Tuesday, his face grim and his eyes downcast, trailed by men bearing the coffin of the infant's mother.
The mother and son were killed the day before by a bombing in Baghdad — two among nearly 1,000 Iraqi lives lost to violence in September. The heartbreaking image, captured in an Associated Press photo, illuminates the human tragedy behind the numbers.
Sectarian bloodshed has surged to levels not seen in Iraq since 2008. More than 5,000 people have been killed since April, when a deadly government raid on a Sunni protest camp unleashed a new round of violence that showed al-Qaida in Iraq is still strong despite years of U.S.-Iraqi offensives against the terror group.
At least 979 people — 887 civilians and 92 soldiers and national policemen — were killed in September, a 22 percent increase from the previous month, the U.N. mission in Iraq said Tuesday. Baghdad was hit hardest, with 418 violent deaths. The U.N. also reported that 2,133 people were wounded nationwide in the relentless car bombings, suicide attacks and shootings.
The spike reversed a brief decline to 804 in August after the death toll reached 1,057 in July, the highest since June 2008 when 975 people were killed.
By comparison, 3,718 civilians were killed in December 2006, the deadliest month of the war, according to a U.S. military tally.
An influx of U.S. troops, a Shiite militia cease-fire and a Sunni revolt against the extremists among them combined to stop the country's slide toward civil war in 2008.
While violence has never stopped in Iraq, the recent uptick in double-digit daily death tolls has stunned many Iraqis after several years of relative calm. It also has raised fears that long-dormant Shiite militias could renew their campaign of retaliatory violence.
"If the security forces are not capable of protecting us, we will protect ourselves and end the misery," said Hatem Muhsin, who lives in Sadr City, a Shiite enclave in Baghdad. "The sectarian war has just started."
Al-Qaida in Iraq has claimed responsibility for much of the violence, including a string of car bombings that targeted mostly Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad on Monday, killing 55 people.
Sheik Mahmoud Abdel Rahman's 11-month-old grandson, Latif, and the child's mother, Hasnah Abdel Rasul, were among them. The infant was wrapped in a shroud with verses from the Quran as Abdel Rahman carried it in a procession to bury his two loved ones in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
The al-Qaida umbrella group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant said Monday's attacks were in retaliation for the "arrests, torturing and targeting of Sunnis" by the Shiite-led government. It vowed more attacks.
The statement's authenticity could not be independently confirmed but it was posted on a website commonly used by militants and its style was consistent with earlier statements by the terror network.
Anger among Iraq's minority Muslim sect stems largely from allegations of abuses and vague anti-terrorism laws that allow random arrests at the hands of the Shiite-led government, which gained power after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime. Tensions rose sharply this year after the April raid, which followed months of largely peaceful Sunni protests.
Police and hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, also reported six more people killed in attacks on Tuesday.
The rising violence has dealt a blow to U.S. hopes of leaving behind a stable country after the American military withdrew in December 2011. More than 4,500 U.S. troops died in the war and billions of dollars were spent.
The developments came as the U.S. government shutdown threatened a measure to provide relief for Iraqis who risked their lives to help the United States.
The special visa has allowed more than 12,000 Iraqi contractors, interpreters and others who aided U.S. efforts, and family members, to move to the United States since 2007. It expired at midnight, with an estimated 2,000 applications still in the bureaucratic process, but the Senate extended it by unanimous consent a half-hour ahead of Monday night's deadline.
The House had called for its extension in a temporary spending bill and could now take it up separately.
"These brave Iraqis risked their lives to protect Americans and many of them are now living under constant threat of retribution from al-Qaida terrorists and Iranian-backed militants as a result of their decision to help American men and women in uniform," Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., said in a joint statement Tuesday. "The United States has a moral obligation to stand with those Iraqis who stood with us. We cannot, and we will not, abandon our Iraqi partners."