By Crispin Thorold
BBC News, Baghdad
Iraq may be getting safer but security will not be assured until Iraqi politicians move towards reconciliation.
John Negroponte said the security surge must be consolidated
That was the message US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte has brought to Iraq during his visit over the past week.
"The security surge has delivered significant results, now progress on political reconciliation including key national legislation as well as economic advances is needed to consolidate the gains made thus far," Mr Negroponte said at a news conference in Baghdad on Sunday.
"If progress is not made on these fronts we risk falling back to the more violent patterns of the past," he said.
This weekend there were two significant stories in Iraq. One illustrated the progress that is being made. The other the challenges it still faces.
On Saturday the latest monthly statistics of the number of people killed were released.
More Sunni-Shia reconciliation is needed, says the US
The estimates from the different ministries varied, but they all showed that around 600 people died violently in Iraq in November.
That is a 30% drop on the number killed in October, and the lowest monthly figure since February 2006.
It is of course a relative improvement.
If the violence continued at that rate, more than 7,000 people would be killed in one year.
Or looking at it another way, in just five months the same number of people would die violently in Iraq as did in Northern Ireland during the course of the 30 years of the Troubles.
The security situation has improved enough to bring real change to the mood in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
People are beginning to return to the markets and in the early evening the shops are busy.
Gunfire, once an almost continuous accompaniment to Baghdad life, now only occasionally punctuates the air.
These changes are the result of three factors:
- The US-led military surge
- The ceasefire declared by a major Shia militia
- The trend of Sunni tribesman fighting against al-Qaeda rather than with them
However, progress towards greater security is not being accompanied by positive political developments.
One of the key objectives of the US military surge was to create the "space" needed for Iraq's politicians to move towards reconciliation. That seems a distant prospect.
The row over Adnan al-Dulaimi has caused factional friction
On Saturday, Sunni Arab members of parliament walked out of the assembly in protest at what they said was the house arrest of one of their leaders, Adnan al-Dulaimi.
Members of the Iraqi army surrounded the MP's compound late on Thursday evening. More than 40 of his staff were arrested, including all his bodyguards, after a joint Iraqi and US operation.
Spokesmen for the Iraqi ministry of defence said they found a bomb in a car near Mr Dulaimi's office and claimed that one of his bodyguards had the keys to the car.
On Sunday evening a government spokesman said that seven of the detained guards had tested "positive" for handling explosives.
"Their hands are polluted with explosives," Ali al-Dabbagh said.
Mr Dulaimi has now been moved to the heavily guarded Green Zone for "his own security", according to government sources.
Throughout this incident, supporters of the MP, who is a key figure in the most important Sunni political bloc, have claimed that the Shia-led government had put Mr Dulaimi under house arrest for political reasons.
Mr Dulaimi believed that he had been the victim of a failed assassination plot that was then used to discredit him.
Whatever the truth behind these claims and counter-claims, this incident has demonstrated once again the considerable hostility that exists between the main Iraqi political factions.
Politicians in Iraq have been trying for months to agree on a number of fundamental issues, which are still unresolved.
These include the reintegration of former members of the Ba'ath party into the government, the allocation of oil resources and the status of the Kirkuk region.
If Mr Negroponte is right, issues like these must be resolved to ensure that the relative security improvements in Iraq are sustained.
Many Iraqis fear that if their politicians cannot reach compromise then the country may once again slip back into sustained violence.