A wave of violence swept the Iraqi capital over the weekend as insurgents threw down the gauntlet to the country's new leadership. The government, formed Thursday, is now confronted with setting aside political ambitions to start making real progress to stabilize the country.
Mortars, car bombs, and other explosives shook Baghdad Friday through Sunday, killing at least 80 people, including five US soldiers. Insurgents in some instances launched multiple attacks at the same place, catching rescue workers and security forces in successive blasts.
The intensity and coordination of the attacks signals the ferocity of the Sunni Arab insurgency's intention to derail any meaningful political and reconstruction progress, US-based analysts say.
"That's what scares the insurgents more than anything else, that this government is beginning to look like it might be able to rule," says Col. Thomas Hammes, an insurgency expert at the National Defense University in Washington.
The formation of the government at the end of last week provided a lightning rod for attacks this weekend, analysts say. "It gives them their focus. It gives [insurgents] their target," says Judith Yaphe, a senior fellow at National Defense University. "The fact that there is a government starting to work - they don't like that idea," she adds. "They don't want anything to function."
While political delays may have allowed insurgent cells to regroup after a series of key arrests this winter, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said Sunday the government would form an operation center intended to target the insurgency.
Also Sunday, Iraqi and US forces arrested 11 militants, many of whom are suspected in the death of Margaret Hassan, who headed CARE International in Iraq. The arrests followed a raid in Madain, a town just south of Baghdad that has seen a sharp rise in insurgent activity.
The unexpectedly virulent insurgency appears to have kept major reconstruction efforts in check as well. The electricity grid in Baghdad is off for more hours than it is on, while residents' reliance on thousands of backup generators puts a strain on the city's precious fuel supplies.
While contractors still face a constant threat of violence, foreign donors have diverted substantial funds just to maintain security. For the US - Iraq's largest donor - an overhaul of reconstruction plans late last year has allowed many key projects to move forward. The Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO) says it has started 2,300 US-funded construction projects in Iraq. That's "more than two-thirds of what we planned to do" in the first place, regardless of the antireconstruction insurgency, says a US Embassy official.
Also, after a slowdown last year, US reconstruction funds are reportedly being spent at more than double the rate seen six months ago. With key infrastructure projects just now coming into a "spending phase," the effects of the past two years' spending will soon be more widely seen, a US diplomat says.
Military commanders stress the need to create "economic alternatives" for people in central Iraq's insurgent-infested Sunni Triangle, as well as other parts of the country, in order to undermine the rebellion. Analysts add that insurgencies can only be beaten by creating stable political processes in which every ethnic group feels it has a stake.
Over the past three months, many Iraqis despaired as meaningful work on the country's myriad problems took a back seat to political aspirations of the newly elected leaders. Euphoria immediately after the election and hope that a new government could bring stability coincided with a marked, albeit temporary, drop in violence.
But a high threshold of compromise was needed to form the government. The goal of the US-drafted Transitional Administrative Law (TAL), the template for Iraq's transition to full sovereignty under a permanent constitution, was to force the inclusion of all the country's many ethnic and religious groups, Western diplomats say. But this also meant delays that have cost Iraq's new leaders credibility with Iraqis.
Despite the focus on compromise, Shiite and Kurdish leaders have failed to complete a critical task finding sufficiently meaningful ways to include Sunni Arabs, the main supporters of the insurgency, in the government. While many Sunnis were unwilling to participate in the US-backed government, Shiite leaders vocally opposed including any Sunnis with ties to the former regime.
The dynamic seen this week, with each political step forward invoking a dramatically violent response, will be repeated for years to come as the country wobbles toward standing on its own, says Colonel Hammes, the insurgency expert.
The widespread use of secondary attacks, used to deadly effect over the weekend, is also part of a progressing insurgency, he adds. "What you are seeing is the normal evolution," Hammes says. "I was kind of surprised it took them so long [to do] secondary attacks. It's a common technique."
In Ms. Yaphe's view, the new government must now earn credibility with the population. This means stepping up the presence of government security forces on the streets, and in turn gaining the trust of average Iraqis who would be willing to report insurgent activities to the authorities, she says. "The government is going to have to get a lot of [security forces] on the streets. Iraqis are going to have to report more suspicious activity."
While the announcement of a new government starts the process toward a permanent sovereign government, the lack of a permanent defense minister could hinder efforts to raise and train Iraqi security forces, the key element to allowing US forces to leave Iraq.
With the Iraqi Army's best battalions increasingly conducting patrols and raids on their own, American military commanders have said that US counterinsurgency operations could be scaled back by half over the course of this year. Actually reducing the number of US troops based in the country, however, would likely come at a later stage.
"You'll see us come down at least by half, not in terms of troop numbers, but tasks," says Maj. Gen. Joseph Taluto, commanding the US 42nd Infantry Division in north-central Iraq.
Likewise in Washington, defeating the insurgency over the long term is now talked about as an Iraqi responsibility. "We can't do this as well as a real native force," Yaphe says.