Page last updated at 14:50 GMT, Monday, 10 November 2008

Bombings raise spectre of al-Qaeda

By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad

The triple bombing during Baghdad's morning rush hour may have come as a surprise to many in the outside world, who now have the idea that Iraq is on the path to stability.

Bomb damage in Baghdad
The multiple blasts in Baghdad bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda

For Iraqis it was a depressing reminder not only of the recent past, but also of the reality that the stability they crave is still far away.

Schoolgirls, travelling in a minibus on their way to classes, were among those caught in the blast in the city's mainly Shia Kasra district.

Although there has been a big drop-off in violence, attacks still happen every day across Baghdad - just at a lower rate than before.

This incident is getting more attention beyond Iraq because there were more deaths than usual.

But in the last week alone more than 30 people have been killed in morning rush hour bombings in Baghdad.

Of particular concern has been the increased use of small bombs attached to the underside of vehicles with magnets or glue - which are much easier to get past security checks.

No-one is clear who is behind these attacks, but the continuing violence is a reflection of the fact that there has been no peace agreement or real reconciliation between Iraq's different factions.

A power struggle between Shias, Sunnis and other groups is still going on and could easily intensify again ahead of the expected American withdrawal.

Militant fears

What is more worrying for many here is the possibility that al-Qaeda's Iraq offshoot or other allied groups could have rebuilt their capacity to carry out larger, mass-casualty attacks of the type that used to hit Baghdad every day.

Although there has been no claim of responsibility so far, al-Qaeda is being blamed for Monday's bombings.

Security checkpoint in Baghdad
Security is tight in Baghdad these days

The attacks in Kasra bore their hallmarks - multiple, near simultaneous bombs and aimed at Shia civilians.

Attacks like this were largely responsible for the sectarian strife in 2006 and 2007, which in turn provoked Shia militias to attack Sunni areas, driving thousands of people from their homes.

Not long after the triple bombings in Baghdad, a female suicide bomber killed six members of one of the Sunni militia groups - or Awakening Councils - now allied with the Americans.

Fourteen other people were injured in the attack, which happened in Baquba, north of the capital.

Again al-Qaeda is seen as most likely to have been responsible, as it is the revolt by these tribal-based groups - which include many former insurgents - that has been key to its relative decline this year.

It is too early to say whether al-Qaeda is making any kind of comeback - and its excesses have lost it a great deal of support within the Sunni community.

But the Americans have been careful not to say the group is defeated, only saying that it has been weakened.

What will give US commanders more pause for thought, though, is that these attacks - whoever carried them out - have happened in a city which now boasts tighter security than ever.

There are checkpoints everywhere, run by the Iraqi army, by the police and by its Sunni militia allies. How were the bombers able to get through? Many will suspect collusion.

And the question hanging over all of this is what happens if the Americans start pulling out more quickly after President-elect Barack Obama takes office in Washington in January.

Most Iraqis want US troops to go home, but they are very worried about the future.

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