The scenario in Baquba Wednesday morning was all too familiar. As jobless men gathered outside a police recruiting center in one of the city's busiest shopping areas, a militant in an explosives-laden car drove into their midst, killing at least 68 Iraqis in the country's deadliest terror attack in months.
The strike underscores the fact that Iraq's interim government, scheduled to select an advisory council this weekend, is having no more success in quelling insurgent cells than the US had prior to installing this government on June 28. While there were some hopes that the motivation for such attacks would decrease with an Iraqi face on the country's interim leaders, those have now been laid to rest.
The bombing in Baquba was the sixth major suicide attack in the country since the appointed interim government took power. More than 120 Iraqis have been killed by car-bombings, roadside bombs, and assassinations since then. The insurgents, most with ties to Islamist Sunni groups, dismiss the interim officials as US puppets and have vowed on jihadi websites to target Iraqis working with them.
But beyond demanding that all foreign troops leave Iraq and attacking the credibility of officials working with the US, the groups behind most of the devastating attacks haven't articulated any political platform. That makes them particularly difficult to deal with, since it leaves little room to find the political compromises that might cause them to lay down arms.
"Armed resistance without any sort of democratic program, that engages in senseless and unnecessary bloodshed, is becoming a bigger problem for us,'' says Wamidh Nadhmi, a political science professor and critic of the US presence in Iraq. "What we need are moderate Iraqis to calm the situation, who won't provoke either the Americans or the insurgents."
The US and the interim government hope the national conference, scheduled to convene Saturday, will draw a broader spectrum of political opinion into Iraq's interim arrangement and thus win more credibility from average Iraqis.
But the conference is being boycotted by a number of Iraq's political groups, particularly the Sunni Islamists who say they support armed efforts to get US troops out of the country. Mr. Nadhmi, who describes himself as a secular liberal democrat, refused an invitation to participate in the conference because he felt it wasn't going to be truly representative or inclusive.
The conference is to select 80 members of a largely ceremonial 100-member advisory council that will work with Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. The other 20 are the members of the dissolved US-appointed Governing Council who didn't get jobs in the new government. Critics like Nadhmi were particularly upset about those guaranteed seats, because it undermines the democratic principles the council is supposed to instill.
"The council might have made a modest contribution, but now I'm afraid that it will create more frustrations than satisfaction,'' says Isam al-Khafaji, an Iraqi economist who helped advise United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on the formation of the country's interim government.
"What we see is that people who have been cooperating are participating and those who aren't cooperating are declining to attend," asks Mr. Khafaji. "Either we were going to have a conference where everyone from the extreme religious establishment to the extreme liberals were going to come in, or else there's no point in having it."
Aides to Mr. Allawi say that more and more Iraqis are cooperating with the interim government and that it's just the extreme fringes like the people who carried out Wednesday's attack that are the problem here. They say stepped-up police and military efforts are eroding militants' ability to strike, and that more Iraqis are coming forward with intelligence about insurgent activities since the handover.
The US and the interim government are still making vigorous efforts against insurgents in much of the country. Wednesday, the US military said that 35 insurgents were killed and 40 captured in a joint operation of US, Ukrainian, and Iraqi troops near the southern city of Nasiriyah. But while scores of insurgents have been killed or captured, there have been few signs that such successes are lessening the overall pace of attacks.
"I'm more afraid every day,'' says a young policeman in central Baghdad, who asked that his name not be used. The lightly armed Iraqi police, with stations scattered throughout every town, have become a favored target of militants. There have been four suicide attacks on police stations in July alone. "I'm risking my life every day for my country," says the policeman, "but the risks for me are increasing."
Generating that fear is, of course, the point of the attacks, though Iraqi officials continue to insist that the problem will soon be contained.
"The terrorists' goal is to hamper the police work, terrorize our citizens, and show that the government is unable to protect the Iraqi people," Deputy Foreign Minister Hamid al-Bayati said, according to the Associated Press. "This will not happen."