The suicide attack that murdered an Iraq police chief today is a sign that political violence remains. But such attacks are unlikely to change US plans to leave by the end of 2011.
The killings are a reminder that Iraq remains a very dangerous place, particularly for local policemen and soldiers, even as the US continues to draw down its forces and appears on course for a near-total military pullout by 2011.
On Monday, 19 people were murdered in a two-punch suicide attack in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province. The first bomb killed family members collecting promised pensions for policemen who were killed in early December. The second attack happened as ambulances and emergency workers arrived on the scene.
Both Mosul and Anbar province remain particularly tense.
Mosul, an ethnically and religiously mixed city, near semi-autonomous Kurdistan and with a large Shiite minority to go with its mostly Sunni Arab population, has long been a cauldron of conflict.
In largely Sunni Anbar, where Islamist militants and nationalist Sunnis put up stiff resistance to the US presence in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, tensions have been on the rise.
The government, led by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has reduced payments to Sunni militias that had been convinced to turn on the insurgency by US forces in exchange for promises of government jobs and there is resentment in the area over the recently formed government. Many Iraqi Sunnis feel that they their voice in government is smaller than their numbers warrant.
What all this means for the year ahead is hard to say.
As the US combat presence has fallen, so have levels of violence, which are far below the height of the Iraq war four years ago. But with Prime Minister Maliki now having firm control over the police and military, with the Interior and Defense portfolios left entirely in his hands following the deal reached earlier this month to form a government nine months after Iraq's parliamentary election, sectarian tensions could rise again.
The US either closed or transferred to Iraqi control more than 400 bases this year, and the conflict looks set very much to remain an Iraqi affair, with input around the margins by Iraq's Shiite neighbor Iran, and to a lesser extent its Sunni neighbor Saudi Arabia.
While some in the US have speculated that the US combat mission in Iraq could be extended if conditions deteriorate in the coming years, Mr. Maliki tossed cold water on that notion earlier this week in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "I do not care about what’s being said. I care about what’s on paper and what has been agreed to. The ... [Status of Forces Agreement] expires on Dec. 31, 2011. The last American soldier will leave Iraq."