With stunning brazenness, pinpoint timing and devastating force, the suicide car bomber who killed the head of Iraq's Governing Council on Monday gave shape to a feeling among Iraqi and U.S. officials and common citizens that the country is almost unmanageable.
With the transfer of limited powers to a new Iraqi government scheduled to take place in six weeks, U.S. and allied forces have been unable to eradicate threats to Iraq's stability, and no one has predicted a reduction in violence before the June 30 handover.
U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is trying to create the caretaker government that will assume authority, but on Monday debate over the details of his plan took a back seat to a more basic question: If Iraq's titular president, Izzedin Salim, can be blown up at the gates of occupation headquarters, what kind of country is being handed over to Iraqis?
"We could not imagine the deterioration leading to such a point. It's getting worse day after day, and no one has been able to put an end to it. Who is going to protect the next government, no matter what kind it is?" said Abdul Jalil Mohsen, a former Iraqi general and member of the Iraqi National Accord, a prominent party represented on the U.S.-appointed Governing Council, which Salim headed this month under a rotating system.
"There's no question: A small band of people can paralyze the country," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of the council. "They are armed and organized and this is the difficulty. The people who did this have no respect for anything of value. It's a real danger to Iraq, the Iraqis and to an agenda to achieve any kind of democracy."
Inside the Green Zone, the heavily fortified U.S. administration compound that Salim was about to enter when the suicide bomber struck, expectations are grim. "It will take a lot of doing for this not to end in a debacle," a senior occupation official said. "There is no confidence in the coalition. Why should there be?"
On Baghdad's hot and dusty streets, Iraqi working people also expressed a deep sense of pessimism. "Our country is at a loss. I don't think that even after the handover the government will control things," said Ali Fakhri, who owns a fabric store in the Kadhimiya district.
"Just look around," said Bakran Ohan, who sells baby clothes. "Do you see any police? Any soldiers? There is a complete lack of security. It won't change from day to night on June 30."
Salim's death was a high-profile reminder of the broader violence affecting Iraq. Central Iraq, home to a long-running revolt by Sunni Muslims, is plagued by daily roadside bombings, occasional car bombings and frequent assassinations of Iraqis working with the U.S.-led administration. To the south, frequent clashes over the past six weeks have pitted U.S. and allied forces against a persistent insurgency led by Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr. Fighting has all but paralyzed several southern cities.
Hostile bands operate freely in cities that straddle the main routes in and out of Baghdad. Foreigners who travel Iraqi roads run the risk of being kidnapped, and reconstruction projects in many parts of the country have come to a standstill.
Car bombs have been used repeatedly with devastating effect in Baghdad and other parts of the country since August, when the first of them destroyed the Jordanian Embassy. Since then, targets have included the U.N. headquarters, Red Cross headquarters, several police stations and two entrances to the Green Zone.
U.S. officials say assassinations and attacks on government buildings are designed to drive a wedge between the occupation authority and Iraqi citizens. When the Iraqi National Accord issued a letter of condolence after Salim's slaying, it noted that six of its members have been killed over the past six months. Salim is the second Governing Council member to be killed since the group's formation last summer.
Since late April, the Iraqi press has reported at least a dozen attempts to kill Iraqis working -- or suspected of working -- with the Americans. On April 28 in Baghdad, a mob hanged three men, each accused of working "as a spy for the enemies of Islam," according to a message left at their feet. The next day, gunmen shot an employee of Baghdad's Sadr City district town hall at his home. The assailants left a letter in his pocket warning against holding a funeral. On May 8, gunmen in Yusufiya, south of Baghdad, killed the head of the town council as he drove on a main street. Farther south in Samawah the next day, gunmen ran the car of the deputy mayor off the road and shot him and three passengers.
Last week, a man in a red mask put a stick of dynamite at the door of a local tribal leader, Roukan Mughier Atwan. It exploded while Atwan was trying to douse it with water, killing him and one of his daughters. Atwan had met with U.S. officials, part of consultations that military authorities try to carry on with traditional leaders; his brother, Thayer, said a letter had been posted nearby promising death to anyone who helped the Americans.
"There was a list of 14 names in the marketplace," including that of his brother, Thayer said. "But later, it was refuted publicly. I guess someone did not listen."
Atwan's death closely followed the May 8 detonation of a remote-control bomb outside the house of Muayyad Ayad, a police official from Habhab, 13 miles north of Baqubah. Ayad survived, but two female bystanders and a male cousin were killed. The same day in nearby Miqdadiyah, gunmen attacked the mayor's house, injuring an Iraqi policeman.
To the west in Samarra, police were also a target last week. On Tuesday, insurgents raided a police station, drove off seven officers and blew up the building and two patrol cars. A group called the Army of Truth circulated a leaflet that called for U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces to leave town. They also said that any building flying the new, U.S.-approved blue and white Iraqi flag would be blown up.
In Fallujah, west of the capital, a U.S.-endorsed agreement to allow patrols by former members of ousted president Saddam Hussein's army quieted the city after a month of combat. Nonetheless, the area around Fallujah is heavy with roadside bombs and ambushes. Over the weekend, U.S. Marines reported on a goodwill visit to the town of Kharma, on the road from Baghdad to Fallujah. As soon as they left, insurgents peppered the town with rockets, according to the 1st Marine Division.
The roads south from Baghdad have become alleys for ambushes and kidnapping, area residents say. Two Russian electrical workers, nabbed near Latifiyah, were released Monday after two weeks in captivity; one of their comrades was killed during the kidnapping.
Even residents of Latifiyah said they had been terrorized by gangs of insurgents. They insist the attackers are not local people, but fundamentalist Wahhabi Muslims hiding among the date groves. "We don't use the main road to Latifiyah," said Ali Hamza Khazraji, a tribal leader who took a reporter to his home last week.
"These Wahhabis hate the Christians. Foreigners can't come here," he said, explaining the kidnappings. "We have lots of trees. They can shoot and hide."
Violence in the south has forced U.S. troops originally slated for duty in and near Baghdad to fight far afield. U.S.-led forces killed about 50 members of Sadr's militia on Monday, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmit told reporters in Baghdad. U.S. troops killed 17 militiamen in Karbala and 13 more in other areas, including Najaf, where the 31-year-old Sadr has taken refuge. A helicopter rocketed some vehicles in southeast Iraq, killing insurgents who were loading weapons onto them, Kimmit said.
In Nasiriyah, Italian paramilitary police withdrew from a downtown government building to a base on the outskirts of the city after three days of taking fire from Sadr's forces and suffering one fatality. Kimmit denied that the Italians had retreated. "They just moved to a more secure camp," he said.
He also brushed aside reports that plans to transfer U.S. troops from South Korea to Iraq had been prompted by the fighting in the south. On Sunday, Kim Sook, a Foreign Ministry official, told reporters in Seoul that "the U.S. government has told us that it needs to select some U.S. troops in South Korea and send them to Iraq to cope with the worsening situation."
The issue of who should be in charge of Iraqi security was hotly debated here in the aftermath of Salim's assassination. Members of the Governing Council argued that Iraqis must be put in control -- now -- with forces drawn from existing militias. The United States is seeking to retain command of the Iraqi security services that are being assembled and trained with American money and has largely resisted creation of units from party or ethnic-based militias.
Ahmed Chalabi, a council member who heads the Iraqi National Congress and has close ties with the Pentagon, said at a news conference Monday that "the Iraqi government must have exclusive and complete control over the army and security services of Iraq."
Hamid Bayati, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, another party on the Governing Council, said: "Iraqis know the country. They are more capable in getting information. They should be responsible."