BAGHDAD, April 23 -- Violence is escalating sharply in Iraq after a period of relative calm that followed the January elections. Bombings, ambushes and kidnappings targeting Iraqis and foreigners, both troops and civilians, have surged this month while the new Iraqi government is caught up in power struggles over cabinet positions.
Many attacks have gone unchallenged by Iraqi forces in large areas of the country dominated by insurgents, according to the U.S. military, Iraqi officials and civilians and visits by Washington Post correspondents. Hundreds of Iraqis and foreigners have either been killed or wounded in the last week.
U.S. soldiers secure a road leading to the dangerous Baghdad airport highway after a car bomb exploded in the capital, killing one Iraqi and wounding seven.
(Khalid Mohammed -- AP)
"Definitely, violence is getting worse," said a U.S. official in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "My strong sense is that a lot of the political momentum that was generated out of the successful election, which was sort of like a punch in the gut to the insurgents, has worn off." The political stalemate "has given the insurgents new hope," the official added, repeating a message Americans say they are increasingly giving Iraqi leaders.
This week, at a checkpoint bunker in Tarmiya where insurgents downed a helicopter, a teenager in sunglasses clutching an AK-47 marked the limits of the Iraqi army's authority. "I wouldn't advise going there," the young Shiite Muslim recruit said, referring to Tarmiya, a Tigris River town a few hundred yards up the road that is dominated by Sunni Muslim landowners who were loyal to Saddam Hussein. "Those are some bad people there."
Up the road, insurgents run relatively free, and last week they appeared to have used a hilltop outside of town to fire what they later said was a shoulder-launched, heat-seeking missile. The missile hit a chartered Russian-made helicopter Thursday, killing six Americans and five other foreigners, including a survivor executed by the guerrillas afterward.
Another U.S. soldier was killed on Saturday when a roadside bomb exploded near a military convoy west of Baghdad, the Reuters news agency reported.
The U.S. official said this week that overall attacks had increased since the end of March. Roadside bombings and attacks on military targets are up by as much as 40 percent in parts of the country over the same period, according to estimates from private security outfits.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi leadership remains in limbo.
The attacks, coming as officials continued to haggle over government posts, have eroded some of the hope that followed the elections. Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish and secular leaders, most of whom are building the first democratically elected Iraqi government of their adult lives, have let power struggles fill nearly one-third of their government's planned 11-month run.
At best, deal-making on some key posts appears stuck where it was two weeks ago, when Ibrahim Jafari, a formerly exiled Shiite leader, accepted the prime minister's job and the task of forming a promised national-unity government.
There was increasing talk that dissenters within the governing coalition, led by Shiites and Kurds, are trying to prolong negotiations until Jafari misses an early May deadline to form a government. This could put the prime minister job into the hands of another Shiite candidate.
Soldiers and police across much of Iraq have fallen into inaction. The Defense and Interior ministries are run by interim chiefs slated for replacement. Initiatives by the Iraqi forces against the insurgents have all but ceased.
The insurgency has found new hideouts, gathering points and recruiting areas in western and central Iraq, and in eastern Iraq along the Tigris River, as well as in other locations.
"The government is useless! I have stopped depending on it," Ali Hali, a 29-year-old Shiite, cried last week. He was among hundreds of wailing residents of the southern city of Najaf who gathered in anger after scores of bodies were found in the Tigris. How the people were killed is not known, but Shiites said they presumed them to be victims of Sunni extremists.