BAGHDAD - A wave of brazen attacks killed dozens of Iraqi soldiers, police and anti-Qaeda militiamen in recent days, but security forces say it pales in comparison with the worst years of violence in the country.
At least 49 security forces personnel have been killed and 39 wounded in at least 18 separate shootings and bombings since July 31, and some security forces positions in Baghdad remain strikingly exposed to attack.
Most of the violence targeted police or army patrols and checkpoints, though some attacks were against more heavily guarded facilities.
Gunmen attempted to use bombs to breach a prison gate in Taji, north of Baghdad, on August 1, and employed similar tactics on the anti-terrorism directorate in the capital the day before, which the interior ministry said was an attempt to free inmates.
While security forces were killed, the attackers apparently failed to free any of the detainees.
With Sunni Muslim militants trickling into neighbouring Syria to battle President Bashar al-Assad, security experts say al-Qaeda is reaping funds, recruits and better morale on both sides of the border, reinvigorating it after years of losses against U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies.
Islamic State of Iraq and other Sunni militant groups hate Assad's minority Alawite sect, a distant offshoot of Shiite Islam, which they see as a heretical oppressor of Sunnis.
Hostile to Shiites in general, they also oppose the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Iran, the major Shiite power in the region, is a firm ally of Assad and wields great influence in Baghdad.
Al-Qaeda appears to be exploiting Sunni-Shiite tensions fuelled by the increasingly sectarian conflict in Syria. Many Sunnis in Iraq are already disgruntled with what they see as Maliki's determination to minimize their share in power.
“The Syrian crisis is a venue in which an Iraqi-dominated al-Qaeda branch is better able to attract fighters and resources to its cause,” said Ramzi Mardini, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “This may be a revival of confidence on the part of Sunni extremists.”
Though there has been a heavy toll from the attacks, members of the security forces in Baghdad said they have been through worse.
Death tolls for some months in 2006, 2007 and 2008 reached more than 1,000 people killed, according to official figures, which by comparison put the July 2012 toll at 325.
"There is not any fear, because we lived through the hardest days in 2004 and 2005 and 2006, which was when we had the most violence, and attacks were 80 percent more than what is happening now," said a 28-year-old who has been in the federal police for seven years.
"The security situation now is much better than in past years, when we were never able to go out wearing military uniforms," said the policeman, who spoke on condition of anonymity and was dressed in shorts but no shirt despite being at a guard post in central Baghdad.
"The security situation now is much better compared to 2007 or before," a 33-year-old federal policeman at a nearby store said, also asking that he not be identified by name.
"The terrorists are trying to cause gaps in the security forces," said the policeman, who joined the force eight years ago, adding that "we do not have any fear or concern, and we are stronger than them."
And Iraqi army Sergeant Ahmed Hussein, a 30-year-old who said he joined the military eight years ago, insisted that "terrorism never shakes me, and the recent attacks do not plant any fear or confusion among the security members."
"The aim of striking the security forces is targeting the country," Hussein said.
Despite the increased attacks against security forces, some of their positions in Baghdad remain woefully exposed.
One federal police checkpoint on a road to the anti-terrorism directorate, which was attacked just days before, consisted of a line of junk spanning the street -- a pile of tyres, a plastic chair weighted with a stone, a small metal table, and a coil of barbed wire strung with plastic bags and other trash.
The position, which offered almost no cover, was manned by just two policemen, only one of whom had a rifle.
At a guard post a few blocks away, the shirtless policeman and at least one colleague were escaping the blistering heat inside an air-conditioned shelter made of a makeshift roof covering the area between two concrete blast walls.
A blanket covered the entrance, keeping cool air in, but blocking the view out. Two rifles leaned against a wall inside, but other key equipment including a helmet, boots and body armour were outside the entrance.
Only a dirty, fluttering Iraqi flag in a metal stand kept watch over the street.
The attacks on security forces come after Al-Qaeda's front group the Islamic State of Iraq said in July that it was launching a "new military campaign aimed at recovering territory."
An earlier message posted on various jihadist forums said the ISI would begin targeting judges and prosecutors, and try to help its prisoners break out of jails.
When asked about the attacks on security forces, John Drake, a security analyst with AKE Group, said by email that "they may be focusing their efforts on the security forces to make them seem weak in the eyes of the people."
"When civilians think that the police can't protect them, they turn to other groups for support, such as Shiite militia and even Al-Qaeda in some predominantly Sunni areas," Drake said.
The attacks are ultimately "likely aiming at polarising communities, which puts pressure on the security forces and may eventually lead to a rise in support for their (militants') cause," he said.
Iraq's violence has eased since the sectarian bloodbath of 2006-2007, but each month since the last American troops left in December al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility for at least one major, well-coordinated attack.
A return to all-out sectarian violence looks unlikely, but the possible fall of Syria's Assad worries Iraqi Shiite leaders who fear that a hard-line Sunni government could come to power instead, emboldening Sunni militants in Iraq.
Already, Baghdad says that seasoned al-Qaeda fighters are crossing the 680-km (422-mile) border into Syria to liaise and conduct attacks on Assad's government. That hands Islamic State of Iraq new legitimacy in the eyes of some Sunnis, experts say.