Wednesday's suicide attack on an Italian military compound in the southern city of Nasiriyah sends a chilling message to the coalition: The resistance to the occupation will be carried to all corners of the country, and all contributors will be targeted.
The worst attack on non-American coalition troops since the occupation began - it killed at least 16 Italians and eight Iraqis - underscores to Iraqis that security is under siege everywhere.
"The spreading of these attacks around Iraq makes perfect strategic sense for an insurgency that all signs tell me can be traced back to the Sunni Triangle," says Ralph Peters, a retired US Army intelligence officer with longtime experience in the Middle East. "This furthers the battle to defeat the occupation by defeating not the US military, which they know they can't do, but the American will," he adds, "and it addresses a second goal of driving off [the Americans'] allies."
Despite criticism from politicians who oppose Italy's presence in Iraq, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged that the attack would not derail his country's commitment. But while no one expects the gruesome attack to cause an immediate withdrawal of foreign troops, it may have a future impact on foreign troop deployments.
"The pattern is that such attacks have weakened the readiness over time to participate" by sending in troops, says Dan Plesch, a military affairs analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London. "The impact may be more on the willingness to go through a further rotation than to proceed to an immediate withdrawal."
At the same time, countries that had committed to sending even small forces, such as Japan, may now be even more reluctant. A chilling aspect of the continuing attacks is that, from the insurgency's perspective, they appear to be working. After the United Nations and Red Cross were hit by similarly deadly car bombings in Baghdad, the organizations largely pulled out. "The goal in the case of these foreign countries that haven't felt quite so targeted up to now is surely the same," says Mr. Peters.
The Italian contingent in Iraq numbers 2,300. Italian troops felt so at ease in Nasiriyah, a prosperous town where the fall of Saddam Hussein was met with joy, that they mingled in its neighborhoods and markets without helmets and sometimes without arms. The south of the country is overwhelmingly Shiite and suffered under the Sunni-dominated Baath regime.
The south has been seen as something of a model by the US-led coalition, pointed to as a success story by officials But the insurgency, which to now has focused its attacks around Baghdad, has found it easy to expand its campaign to new areas. With his country's oil wealth, Saddam Hussein built a network of wide and well-paved roads that are open and operating with few checkpoints. While the locals may be friendly, it's easy for others to move in.
"Nasiriyah was especially chosen,'' says M.J. Gohel, president of the Asia Pacific Foundation in London, an independent think-tank. "The aim is to show that coalition troops aren't going to be safe in Kurdish areas, or in Shiite areas or in any part of Iraq."
The suicide bombing marked a week in which attacks on coalition forces surged in the south of the country. In Basra, the principal southern city, there have been 4 bombings since Nov. 4. "The rise in incidents began in just the last week," said Maj. Charles Mayo, spokesman for the British forces in Basra. Attacks have also increased in the largely Kurdish north.
The method used to carry out the Nasiriyah attack - a well-coordinated suicide truck bombing - raises again the question of who is behind the insurgency, which seems to be gaining in sophistication and breadth. Recent arrests of suspected planners and participants in attacks on coalition forces have netted both former Iraqi military officers and foreigners suspected of entering Iraq to carry out jihad, or holy war against the infidel occupation.
Some analysts say the methods and sophistication points directly to Al Qaeda, while others caution that no links to the organization of Osama bin Laden have yet been made.
On Tuesday Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of Coalition forces, said that the US is holding 20 prisoners suspected of links to Al Qaeda. But he said no clear ties had yet been established.
"We should be extremely cautious about making that [Al Qaeda] link," says Mr. Plesch. "It's a connection the [Bush] administration is desperate to make, but where's the proof?" He notes that the secular Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka used suicide attacks, as have "occupation" fighters in Lebanon and Palestine. And he says there is no reason to assume that the Iraqi military and Republican Guard are not adopting new tactics to continue the war they assume they never lost.
But others emphasize that the method is trademark Al Qaeda - at a time when bin Laden has said Iraq is "now the battleground" of his war.
There have been few groups in history that have used waves of suicide attackers at once, as Al Qaeda has time and again, most recently in the car-bomb attack in Riyadh Saudi Arabia. That attack, on a guarded residential compound for foreign workers, killed 17 people after a group of attackers used gunfire to fight their way in, and then detonated their bomb.
Wednesday's attack also involved two phases, according to the British military, which has overall responsibility for security in the south of the country. "A truck crashed into the entrance of the Italian Military Specialist unit... and at that moment a car followed through and was detonated,'' says Flight Lt. Katherine McIntosh, a spokeswoman for the British military in Basra.
Asia Pacific's Gohel says he can think of no other organization but Al Qaeda with the resources, namely a large cadre of operatives, to carry out so many suicide attacks. At least 10 men have committed suicide in bomb attacks in Iraq since August.
"What we're seeing in Iraq is a ratcheting up of the stakes in a determined push by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-linked foreign Islamic terrorists whose aim is to commit atrocities with a [primary] purpose of hampering the reconstruction effort,'' says Gohel.
"There's a possibility that elements linked to Saddam cooperated in this... but this has got all the hallmarks of Sunni Muslim led-foreign Islamic fighters. Al Qaeda's stated aim has been to turn Iraq into a cesspool and another Afghanistan."
"It is by no means a stretch to imagine that links could be developing on the battlefront between international terrorists and the Baathists and former military," Peters says. "Remember, this is the region where the enemy of my enemy is my friend."
• Hassan Fattah contributed to this story from Basra.