The violence that has flared throughout Iraq in recent weeks may point out a harsh truth: US forces there probably will have to mount a draining counter-insurgent campaign, plus support armed nation-building, for months - or even years - to come.
True, the attacks might be aimed at derailing the June 30 handover of sovereignty to Iraqis, US analysts say. Pentagon officials characterize the violence as the desperate tactic of frustrated bitter-enders. But there is clearly a semiorganized resistance that wants to destabilize the nation as it tries to create domestic politics from scratch. Those people won't fold on July 1, nor will they stop looking for ways to sour US public opinion in the hope of pressuring Americans to pull out.
"We'll see a continuation of these kinds of events," says Judith Yaphe, an Iraq expert at the National Defense University in Washington. "Nobody is going to want to let up on us."
In the latest tragic incident, suicide bombers on Wednesday killed at least 68 people, some of them children, in the British-patrolled southern Iraqi city of Basra. The explosions produced panic in a city that previously had been relatively calm. The mayor of Basra blamed Al Qaeda terrorists for the attack.
A powerful car bomb in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Wednesday may also have Al Qaeda ties. The blast killed nine and injured dozens at a police headquarters, a month after a letter purportedly from the terror group had threatened to target Saudi security agents.
Previously, US officials have said that Al Qaeda is behind some of the violence that has swept Iraq this month, but they have also listed former regime elements as prime suspects. The M-14 branch of the former Iraqi intelligence service - nominally a special operations and antiterrorist operation - is responsible for some of the terror campaign against US-led coalition forces, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told a Senate committee on Tuesday.
The explosives section of M-14 prepared for the US invasion by producing hundreds of suicide vests and belts for use by irregular fighters, said Mr. Wolfowitz, paraphrasing a Defense Intelligence Agency report.
"Given their high level of skill, M-14 tactics are likely to be sophisticated," he said.
From a purely military viewpoint, the unrest in Iraq is not necessarily a massive problem. Fighting in Fallujah has involved around 1,000 dedicated insurgents, in a city of 300,000. The broader insurgency seems to involve 10,000 to 15,000 fighters, according to data compiled by Anthony Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
For the US, success is a high priority. Both Mr. Bush and his presumed rival, John Kerry, have vowed to stay the course in Iraq. The situation on the ground would have to deteriorate enormously to delay the June 30 handover, given the suspicions of colonialism such a move would raise in the Arab world.
That said, the risks going forward are far greater than the president has so far publicly acknowledged, noted Mr. Cordesman in a recent seminar. Reputable polls show that a majority of Iraqis want the US out. They also show that a majority of Iraqis want a strongman, not necessarily democracy, in the short term. In one survey, 75 percent of Iraqis said they would never join a political party, and even oppose the existence of parties.
"When you talk about people headed for democracy and most of them don't want to be part of a political party, there is a question," noted Cordesman.
Of course, the insurgency the US faces is far from a monolithic force. It is composed of different factions of Shiite militias, Sunni extremists, former Republican Guards, and foreign terrorists.
Right now this uncoordinated group may be experiencing a collective rise in morale. Terrorists might well count as a victory the new Spanish government's announcement that it will pull out its troops, following terror attacks in Madrid.
In Iraq, violence is beginning to curtail the work of contractors rebuilding the nation. Even the tenuous ceasefire reached between US forces and insurgents can be interpreted by opponents as a sign of US weakness, says one analyst. "What has encouraged this upsurge is they think we blinked," says Patrick Lang, former head of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency.
A handover to the UN might help the US build legitimacy in the eyes of many moderate Iraqis. But it won't mean an end to the US military presence anytime soon. Creation of new Iraqi security forces has lagged. "The UN itself does not have the capacity to provide security. It has to be given it," says John Steinbruner, director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland.
So far the administration has not requested money for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for 2005. Such a supplemental request is inevitable, however, say lawmakers. Estimates of its price tag range from $50 billion on up.
And the US presence - and that expense - may well continue beyond 2005. US troops already in Iraq are likely to face delays in their scheduled return. Units elsewhere may have the beginning of their Iraq rotations put forward.
"The operations tempo is getting very very high and I think [may be] unsustainable over the next six to 12 months," says David Newton, former ambassador to Iraq.