Bombers and gunmen killed at least 56 Iraqis in more than two dozen attacks across the country Wednesday, mostly targeting security forces and rekindling memories of the days when insurgents ruled the streets.
The attacks made August the deadliest month for Iraqi policemen and soldiers in two years, and came a day after the U.S. declared the number of U.S. troops had fallen to fewer than 50,000, their lowest level since the war began in 2003.
Powerful blasts targeting security forces struck where they are supposed to be the safest, turning police stations into rubble and bringing down concrete walls erected to protect them from insurgents.
"Where is the protection, where are the security troops?" said Abu Mohammed, an eyewitness to a car bombing near Baghdad's Adan Square that killed two passers-by. "What is going on in the country?"
Iraq's foreign minister said insurgents are attempting to sow as much chaos as possible, as lawmakers struggle to form a new government and Americans withdraw troops.
"Here you have a government paralysis, you have a political vacuum ... you have the U.S. troop withdrawal," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said. "And, in such environment, these terrorist networks flourish."
But like most attacks here, they are met with outrage on the streets and condemnation from government officials. Authorities, however, are virtually powerless in the face of the insurgents' threat.
At least 265 security personnel -- Iraqi military, police and police recruits, and bodyguards -- have been killed from June through August, compared to 180 killed in the previous five months, according to an Associated Press count.
In August, nearly 5 Iraqi security personnel on average have been killed every day so far.
These numbers are considered a minimum, based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher, as many killings go unreported or uncounted.
That rise in deaths coincided with the drawdown of U.S. troops. American officials said on Tuesday that the number of troops fell below 50,000 -- a step toward a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.
The scale and reach of Wednesday's attacks in 14 cities and towns underscored insurgent efforts to prove their might against security forces and political leaders charged with running and keeping stability in Iraq.
"The insurgents hope to regain the initiative once the Americans are gone," said John Pike, the director of the military information website GlobalSecurity.org.
"The longer there's a stalemate between the Shiite and Sunni politicians," Pike said, "the greater the opportunity for the extremists to translate political violence into political influence."
The deadliest attack came in Kut, 100 miles (160 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, where a suicide bomber blew up a car inside a security barrier between a police station and the provincial government's headquarters.
Police and hospital officials said 19 people died, 15 of them policemen. An estimated 90 people were wounded.
In northern Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb in a parking lot behind a police station, killing 15 people, including six policemen.
Police and hospital officials said another 58 were wounded in the explosion that left a crater three yards (meters) wide and trapped people beneath the rubble of felled houses nearby.
A police officer was also killed in Mosul where gunmen attacked a police checkpoint and one person was killed in the city of Beiji, in Iraq's northern province of Salahuddin.
Iraqi police and soldiers have always been prime targets for insurgents trying to destabilize the country and intimidate new recruits from joining the security services.
Since Iraq's March 7 elections failed to produce a clear winner, U.S. officials have feared that competing political factions could stir up widespread violence.
Iraqi leaders have failed to end the political impasse.
Iraqi and U.S. officials alike acknowledge growing frustration throughout the nation nearly six months after the vote and say that politically motivated violence could undo security gains made over the past few years.
Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the blasts but they bore the hallmark of al-Qaida in Iraq, which is known to use car bombs and suicide attackers.
For ordinary Iraqis and policemen on the front line, the blasts brought back memories of the dark days of 2006 and 2007 when insurgents, not Iraqi police or soldiers, reigned.
"These attacks are taking us back to when the terrorists had the ability to launch many attacks in different areas," said Taha Ahmed al-Ajili, a 34-year-old policeman in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown just north of Baghdad.
In Tikrit, a roadside bomb killed a policeman on patrol and wounded another.
Al-Ajili said he feared people would blame what he described as poorly armed policemen and soldiers for the lack of security. He said the security forces are doing their best.
Five others, including an Iraqi soldier and a police officer, were killed in small bursts of violence in Baghdad.
From the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to the holy Shiite shrine town of Karbala to the oil city of Basra, scattered bombings and shootings killed an additional 14 people -- including 6 security forces -- and injured scores more.
A senior Iraqi intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to the media, raised the possibility that some of the attackers had inside help.
Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Lara Jakes and Rebecca Santana in Baghdad and AP researcher Brooke Lansdale in New York contributed to this report.