If bombings continue they may put elections, scheduled for next year, in doubt
By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst
A string of car bomb attacks in Baghdad raises three uncomfortable questions:
- Are we witnessing a revival of al-Qaeda in Iraq?
- Are the Iraqi security forces up to the job of maintaining security in the run-up to elections in a few months' time?
- And can the Obama administration keep to its deadline of withdrawing all US combat troops by the end of August 2010?
The violence in Iraq has always come from a variety of sources - disgruntled former Baathists, freelance militias and criminal gangs, as well as Islamist extremists.
But in recent months there have been signs that al-Qaeda - driven on to the defensive in 2007-08 - is making a comeback.
It is also changing its tactics.
Symbols of the state
In the past, Sunni militants tended to choose soft targets such as markets and mosques frequented by Shia Muslims - with the clear aim of fomenting sectarian strife.
More recently, in the big attacks in Baghdad in August and October, and in the latest bombings this month, the targets have been high-profile symbols of the state - such as government ministries and universities.
The message of such attacks is two-fold: that al-Qaeda is still in business, and that the Shia-led government of Nouri al-Maliki is powerless to protect the heart of the capital.
The latest attacks, although spectacular, are not "a harbinger of civil war" says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of London.
Iraqis show no inclination to return to the sectarian blood-letting of two or three years ago.
But the bombings are destabilising.
They also cast doubt on the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces - which are now supposed to be taking the lead, with the Americans playing the role of junior partner.
Bombings near key ministries of state weaken the Iraqi government
Many Iraqis no longer believe Mr Maliki's promises to safeguard their security - and this in turn may damage his chances in the parliamentary elections now scheduled to take place in early March.
Whenever militants strike at seemingly well-guarded government buildings, there is a suspicion they had help on the inside.
How else could they gain access to such places?
The Iraqi security forces have grown in numbers and ability. But there are still obvious deficiencies.
The unanswered question is whether they are ready to take over when US combat troops withdraw.
As he shifts his gaze from Iraq to Afghanistan, US President Barack Obama badly needs to stick to his timetable for withdrawal.
DEADLIEST ATTACKS SINCE 2003
Mar 2004: 171 killed in bombings in Baghdad and Karbala
Nov 2006: 202 killed in multiple blasts in Baghdad
Mar 2007: 152 killed in truck bombing in Talafar
Apr 2007: 191 killed in car bombings in Baghdad
Aug 2007: More than 500 killed in attacks on villages near Sinjar
Oct 2009: 155 killed in twin truck bomb attacks in Baghdad
Dec 2009: At least 127 killed in a series of car bombs in Baghdad
Source: News agencies, BBC
But for that to happen he needs a necessary modicum of security - and of political consensus.
The months of wrangling before parliament finally passed an election law starkly underlined the persistence of ethnic and sectarian rivalries and tensions.
As a result of the repeated delays in passing the law, the elections had to be postponed from mid-January until early March.
If audacious attacks continue, and the death toll again starts to climb, it will be that much harder to hold credible elections.
That in turn will make it more difficult for Mr Obama to claim the situation is stable enough for the pull-out of troops to go ahead.