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Bombers challenge Iraqi progress

Iraqis carry the coffin of a relative in Baghdad 08/03
A recent spate of violence has raised questions about Iraq's long-term future

By Mike Sergeant
BBC News, Baghdad

In recent months, Iraqi politicians and US military commanders had become increasingly confident that this country was finally on the right track.

At the weekend Maj Gen David Perkins, the coalition spokesman, said that Iraq had moved "from a very unstable to a stable position".

Three major bombings in less than a week will be causing some anxiety among political leaders in Baghdad and Washington.

Last Thursday 10 people were killed by a car bomb at a crowded cattle market in Babel province, south of Baghdad.

Coalition commanders say these militants are well and truly 'on the run' and increasingly marginalised from Iraqi politics and society

On Sunday more than 30 died when a suicide bomber riding a motorbike blew himself up at a police academy in the capital.

Tuesday's bombing in Abu Ghraib also killed and wounded a large number of people - including journalists and local officials.

So is it a trend? Is the violence in Iraq - that had been falling for many months - starting to shoot up again?

Continuing dangers

It is not possible to get a definitive answer by looking only at the events of the past few days.

In both January and February of this year, the number of people who died violently across Iraq was between 200 and 300.

Certainly, March has started very badly. But the total number of killings might not look exceptional by the end of the month.

RECENT IRAQ ATTACKS
8 Mar Bomb at police academy kills 28 in Baghdad
13 Feb Attack on Shia pilgrims kills 32 south of Baghdad
12 Feb Bomb attacks in Mosul and Karbala
11 Feb Baghdad market bombs kill 16
4 Feb Female suicide bomber kills 35 in Baghdad

Iraqis in Baghdad do not give the impression in their conversations that they believe their country is at risk of sliding back to the chaos of two years ago.

But the bombings certainly underline the many dangers Iraqi civilians, soldiers, policemen and politicians face every day.

Those policy makers who think that the Iraq "problem" has somehow been "solved" might be starting to worry that they had, once again, been over-optimistic and guilty of simplifying a very complicated place.

Uncomfortable reminders

There was great relief and satisfaction in January when provincial elections went smoothly.

The actual day of the vote was one of the quietest people could remember. No significant incidents were reported anywhere in the country.

The poll was followed by US President Barack Obama's announcement last month that the US would be ending combat operations in Iraq by next August.

Fifty-thousand US troops could remain in Iraq after that date. But most of the 140,000 currently in the country would be going.

The president presented it as his plan to "end the war in Iraq".

On Sunday, we were given some of the details about how the withdrawal will take place. Twelve-thousand US troops will leave by September this year.

But the big pull-out probably will not be possible until 2010.

Officials have emphasised that much depends on overall improvements in security. The key test will be whether national elections can be held successfully later this year.

The US military presents the recent bombings as the last throes of groups linked to al-Qaeda - desperate to maintain their relevance.

Coalition commanders say these militants are well and truly "on the run" and increasingly marginalised from Iraqi politics and society.

That may well be the case. But it is still very hard to say whether security in Iraq will improve.

Every big suicide attack is an uncomfortable reminder of the risks that may still lie ahead.

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