Within hours of the latest suicide bombing in Baghdad Tuesday, Faleh Naqib, the Iraqi interior minister, had arrived at the scene dressed in a suit and sunglasses to signal his government's determination to tackle the terrible spiral of violence. At least he was brave enough to venture to the blast site. When the U.S. occupation authorities were running the country before July, none of their officials dared visit the scenes of the countless explosions that have claimed so many innocent lives. Yet Tuesday morning, as most Iraqis do most days, the crowd mocked and taunted the minister and his government, incensed at the lawlessness of the new Iraq.
It is almost exactly 18 months since America and Britain embarked on the invasion and reshaping of Iraq. By now they had expected marked signs of reconstruction and development and the foundation of a democratic process that would wipe clean decades of dictatorship and hold up a model for the Arab world. And yet the project looks bleaker than ever before. For the second time this year the U.S. military has lost control of several pockets of insurgency across Iraq, including such towns as Fallujah and Ramadi, in the Sunni heartland west of Baghdad, and even districts of the capital itself, such as the eastern Shiite slums of Sadr City.
The kidnapping industry is burgeoning. Since the war hundreds of Iraqis have been taken captive for extortionate ransoms. After separate Sunni and Shiite uprisings in April, the kidnappers have set their sights on foreigners: So far at least 26 foreign truck drivers, contractors and journalists have been executed and around 20 others are still being held. Dozens more have eventually been released alive.
Attacks on the U.S.-led military coalition have reached a new peak. In April, then the worst month of violence since the war's start and a time when the U.S. military lost control of some of its most important supply routes, there were an average of 60 attacks a day against the troops. Last month there were 87.
Earlier this year U.S. commanders insisted there were at most only 5,000 insurgents in Iraq. Now they publicly admit there may be 12,000. In private they say up to 20,000.
The most militant of the groups that make up the "muqawama," or resistance, is Tawhid and Jihad, apparently led by the Jordanian Islamic militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. His group has been blamed for dozens of car bombings and assassinations and has claimed responsibility for kidnappings and executions. Tuesday the group took responsibility for the car bomb that killed 47 people and injured more than 100 others at the police recruiting station in Baghdad. "With the grace of God, a lion from our martyrdom brigades was successful in striking a center for apostate police volunteers," it said on a militant Web site.
The first elections since the war are due in January and only they, surely, hold the key to tackling the violence. "We want to rule our country. That is not too much to ask," said Wamid Nadmi, a political scientist at Baghdad University and outspoken critic of the occupation.
Iyad Allawi, prime minister for less than three months, is desperate to hold the political process on track. His words are laden with confidence and the promise of the tough rule of law. "What we are after really is implementing the political process, to move towards the elections," he said at the weekend. "We are confident that we will be able to have the elections conducted in January." He said he could not see bastions of insurgency such as Fallujah still being a problem by then. "I cannot see this happening," he said.
But his optimism looks ever more fragile. At the weekend even Gen. Thomas Metz, the second most senior U.S. Army commander in Iraq, admitted it was not now safe enough to hold elections. "But I do have about four months where I want to get to local control. And then I've got the rest of January to help the Iraqis to put the mechanisms in place," he told the Associated Press.
Allawi has sought to invite back into society those Baathists not responsible for committing crimes under the Saddam Hussein regime. By doing so he hoped to undermine the insurgency and divide its Islamic components from the secular, military support of ex-Baathists. But the effort has had little success.
Now he is trying an alternative route, similar to that used by U.S. troops over the past year. In such towns and districts as Fallujah and Sadr City, he has held out the promise of accelerated reconstruction spending in return for peace. It may yet work, although for some Iraqis it is perhaps already too late.
He may also be undermined on this front by Washington: So far only $1 billion of the $18 billion in redevelopment money promised by the U.S. has been spent. Now the U.S. is reportedly planning to redirect $3.4 billion earmarked for power, water and other reconstruction projects into security and improving oil production.
The vicious circle of the Iraq project is almost complete: It is too dangerous to spend reconstruction dollars while frustration at the lack of reconstruction fuels the spiral of violence.