A string of suicide bombings, targeting civilians cooperating with US forces, suggests the guerrilla strategy of disrupting Iraq's transition to a unified democracy is now in full and deadly swing.
A huge blast in Baghdad Wednesday outside an Iraqi Army recruiting post came one day after a similar car bombing south of Baghdad Tuesday. The two bombings killed more than 100 people, and together with suicide bombings in the Kurdish city of Arbil on Feb. 1, make for the deadliest two-week period for Iraqi civilians since the US occupation began.
The bombings could delay the country's political transition, with a transfer of sovereignty from the US-led coalition to Iraqi authorities supposed to take place June 30. Some experts say that Iraqis will have to take more responsibility for safeguarding their own stability and rely less on the Americans. Others say the US will either have to stay in control of the country longer - or face the prospect of an Iraq plunged into civil war. The suicide attacks are designed to turn Iraqis not just against the American occupiers but also each other.
"It's the 'intimidate and wedge' strategy," says Judith Yaphé, a former CIA analyst and now Iraq expert at the National Defense University in Washington. "The idea is to drive the Iraqis against the US and to make this all fail."
Says Patrick Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency Middle East specialist with extensive experience in Iraq: "In a country of major groups that really don't like each other much, the strategy here is to cultivate the mistrusts and prepare the ground for civil war after we leave. What is absolutely unacceptable to the groups doing this is a Shia-dominated government."
The suicide bombings, which follow a pattern also gaining steam in Afghanistan, appear to be working at turning civilians, already chafing at the occupation, against the transition's fledgling institutions.
Ahmad Madloun, for example, spent three months preparing to join the new Iraqi Army. But Wednesday's deadly suicide bombing in Baghdad changed his mind.
"I won't join the Army now, even if they pay me my weight in gold," he says lying in a hospital bed recovering from shrapnel wounds. Mr. Madloun had carefully prepared for his induction into the Army, filling in the forms and passing his medical exam. He turned up at the entrance of the recruiting office early Wednesday morning ready to begin a new career as a soldier.
"We were joking and laughing when there was a big explosion and I saw a huge red flame," he says. Fragments from the blast struck him in the chest and his left arm. "There were two dead people in front of me and two more dead behind me."
Madloun, a farmer, said his cousins had encouraged him to join the Army. "They told me how much respect they were receiving, the good food, and salaries," he says. "But I cannot join the Army now. When I get my health back, I will go back to farming."
Others injured in the Baghdad blast told stories that suggest the wedge between the US and the Iraqi people is growing.
Abbas Adel-Ghafar, his head swathed in bandages, blames the US for its continued occupation of Iraq. "We are grateful to the Americans for getting rid of Saddam," he says, "but they are still occupiers. These attacks would not happen if they left."
Still, he says he does not have the luxury of an alternative job. "All I know is the military," the former MIG-21 fighter pilot says. An officer in the Iraqi Air Force under Saddam Hussein, Mr. Adel-Ghafar found himself unemployed when the military was disbanded after the war. Like other survivors of the blast, Adel-Ghafar blames foreign Arabs "from Syria, Jordan, or Palestine" for the deadly suicide bombing.
US military officials in Iraq say evidence is growing that suggests foreign Islamic extremists connected to Al Qaeda are teaming up with Iraqi guerrilla forces tied to the ousted Baathist regime. But how the US military should respond to the heightened terror remains a question of debate.
Security remains the key to whether or not the US will be able to successfully turn over authority to Iraqi institutions as planned. And that means keeping the recruitment and training of Iraqi police and army units on track - even though previous attacks and low pay prompted some new recruits and officers to drop out.
Dan Senor, a US spokesman in Baghdad, says there is a "gradual upward trend" in Iraqi volunteers, and past attacks have "not decreased the number of Iraqis who have stepped forward."
US officials report that three new battalions of the Iraqi Army have completed basic training, with plans to have 40,000 men on the ground by the end of the year. There are currently about 125,000 UStroops in Iraq.
At a briefing earlier this month, Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander, 1st Armored Division, said that counting recent graduates, the Iraqi police now number almost 8,000, with the number expected to increase to 10,000 by May and 19,000 by February 2005. In addition, there are now more than 5,000 "fixed-site protective service" officers who guard ministry buildings and other sites that are potential terrorist targets.
That kind of commitment to Iraq's transition will have to come more broadly from the population if the insurgent strategy is to be defeated, says Ms. Yaphé. She says that bombings last year in Saudi Arabia by Islamic extremists have galvanized the sometimes sympathetic population against terrorists, and she says a similar rejection could undermine the extremists in Iraq.
"There's really not much the US can do against these kinds of attacks beyond what the military is doing now. The people have to use their eyes and ears, become engaged," she says. "They have to be more and more a part of the solution."
But others say the US, by insisting it will give up its leading role in the country, is providing an incentive for the groups interested in a destabilized Iraq to act against the civilian population.
"We have to give up the June 30 transition and stay long enough to create a viable government with the national institutions that can offer some hope of security and stability," says Mr. Lang. Even giving up that date, he says the US may have to consider dividing up Iraq. The violence and rising inter-ethnic and religious tensions "may be telling us that Iraq may not be a viable entity as a unified country."