You barely notice them at first on entering the mortuary in the city of Najaf. They seem insignificant among the bodies burnt to charcoal, or flayed to muscle and skin, half covered in rags, scenes of a terrible and continuing horror. Then a worker leads you to them; a small bundle wrapped in a pillowcase, and a larger bundle beside wrapped in bloody rags.
The bundles contain all that remains of a mother and her baby, caught in their red Volkswagen as a car bomb detonated outside the shrine of Imam Ali during Friday prayers. Now they are reduced to this.
To reach them, you have to step among the bodies stacked on the floor. There is not enough space to accommodate the human detritus of this atrocity, which killed one of Iraq's most important Shia political leaders, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, ripping him into pieces so small that all that was left was a blackened piece of muscle, sent to Baghdad for DNA identification.
Outside the mortuary, there are more bodies lying in untidy rows covered by red-stained cloths, waiting to be identified by their families.
Some are unrecognizable. Others lie slashed and bloody, but provide enough clues for the families to confirm their worst fears.
Among them is Jabar Kadeem Faisal al-Amry, a bearded middle-aged man. He is wrapped in a painted banner and diaphanous strips of cloth from dresses grabbed from a nearby boutique when he was killed by the blast. He died, according to his brother Mohammed, on his way to buy sweets and ice cream for his six children.
Those who have yet to find their relatives among the dead speak softly among themselves. 'Why did this happen?' one man asks. 'God only knows,' replies a friend. A third blames the Americans and the Israelis.
'This is a disaster,' says Ahmed Jabal, a 30-year-old English teacher, who has lost three relatives in the blast. 'There are so many sides now in Iraq you don't know who is your friend.'
Jabal is certain of one thing. 'I don't believe any Shia could have done this to one of his holy places.'
It is a view repeated by other Shias, who form 60 per cent of Iraq's population. Despite long-running differences between Shia groups, they do not believe that even the hardliners could contemplate such an appalling crime.
If it is not down to dissident Shia groups, the only alternative explanation is that Hakim was killed by the same forces that bombed the UN earlier in the month and the Jordanian embassy - the same loose network that has been killing US soldiers almost daily.
A forensic link appears to have been established. The same explosives that were used in the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad, killing special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello, appear to have been used to kill Hakim - who offered a voice and hope to many Shias.
The logic believed to be behind the attacks, which have been happening at a rate of around 13 a day, is to sow maximum chaos in Iraq and undermine post-war reconstruction efforts. If true, it is succeeding in this case, with many of the grief-stricken and increasingly angry Shias crowding Najaf believing the bombing was either a sinister US conspiracy or the work of ex-Baath Party militants loyal to Saddam Hussein.
The groups behind those attacks go by a multiplicity of names - and increasingly, it appears, by a multiplicity of agendas that verge on anarchy. There are the Muslim Fighters of the Victorious Sects, the Iraqi Resistance Brigade and the General Command of the Iraqi Armed Resistance and Liberation Forces. There is the Army of Mohammed, Islamic Armed Group of al-Qaeda, Fallujah branch. There are the White Flags and Muslim Youth and Wakefulness and Holy War. All have claimed in audio and video tapes that they have been behind the bloodshed, directed largely at US troops.
The significance of this catastrophe, for all Iraqis, was written on the faces of the staff at Baghdad's Sheraton Hotel as the news broke and they gathered around the vast television in the foyer, Sunnis and Shias alike transfixed with fear and horror.
What we all are asking now is whether this audacious and destabilizing attack will plunge the country into a maelstrom of violence, from which what many now call the Saddam network can emerge victorious.
The picture of that network of terrorists and guerrilla fighters, between 5,000 and 7,000 strong, which has been emerging in the past few weeks is of groups that are organizing but not yet organized, with local command structures, money, weapons and expertise. Its fighters, by and large, are ex-members of Saddam's former security forces and Baath Party, bolstered with manpower and expertise by Arab fighters joining the new jihad against America - unlikely bedfellows with the secular Baathist cause.
The network is described in recovered documents and by captured senior Saddam officials who have disclosed that, while Iraq's dictator had few military plans for opposing the coalition forces, what he left was a time bomb designed to blow up in the coalition's face. It is a campaign of attacks that reached a crucial watershed last week as the number of US soldiers to die in Iraq in the post-invasion period overtook the number killed in action in the 'war proper'. Now even that perhaps has been overshadowed by Friday's events
'What they are looking for is chaos,' says Charles Heatly, the British spokesman for Paul Bremer, Iraq's US administrator. That is what made the UN headquarters [which was bombed the previous week] a good target for them.'
The people behind the attacks, according to Heatly and the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), are those who can never hope to thrive in the 'New Iraq' - crooked businessmen and thugs from the state security organizations and towns like Ramadi and Fallujah, once the recruiting grounds for Saddam's Republican Guard.
According to Heatly, their actions have no resonance with the wider population. 'These people have no future and are going to go down,' he says. 'Since the UN bombing we've seen an increase of walk-ins by Iraqis to identify suspected terrorists. The vast majority don't want this to happen.'
What Heatly does not say is that the groups have rapidly adapted, moving from crude ambushes on US troops to setting up factories turning out explosive devices and artillery shells.
His optimism is undermined by the physical reality that is growing up around the headquarters of the international organizations in Baghdad. Confronted with the fact of the shattered UN headquarters at the Canal Hotel, and amid a wave of threats to organizations from CNN to the Red Cross, the internationals are burrowing into the fortresses.
Most striking of which is 'The Bubble' - the headquarters of Paul Bremer and those charged with reconstructing Iraq. Surrounded by a wall of reinforced and blast-proof concrete, and guarded by tanks and helicopters, this is the Green Zone, an area of palaces and hub of Bremer's vision for the New Iraq.
It is almost self-sufficient. Those working their 16-hour shifts there can be treated in the compound's own hospital, run safely in its grounds, even take in a film. When they go outside, it is by armored car with military escort.
Those who once sneered at Bremer's isolation are now being forced into their own fortresses. At the complex of the Sheraton and Palestine hotels, a wall of concrete and wire is guarded by armed Iraqi security guards overseen by US troops in tanks.
At the headquarters of the International Committee for the Red Cross last week, which evacuated many of its staff following the UN bombing, workers were building tall walls of sandbags.
And while Bremer's office insists that the security situation is slowly improving, it is not the view of the security officers who have been employed to advise and protect the major international organizations
'The situation is getting worse,' said a senior official to a major aid organization who asked not to be identified. 'We have been warned that we may be a target. I fear this is a society in the process of disintegration.
'What we are seeing is different groups emerging with different agendas. There are those who do not like foreigners, there are those fighting against what they see as an occupation, and those who believe all the international organizations are Christian.'
IT IS this last point that is becoming increasingly crucial in the development of those resisting the US 'occupation'. Evidence has emerged in recent weeks that Iraq has become the magnet for jihad fighters, who, according to some sources, have brought in the bomb-making expertise and sophisticated terrorist operations that culminated in the UN attack.
'What we are seeing,' said one security source, 'is a developing marriage of convenience between the ex-Baathists, who have the money, the contacts and the ground knowledge, and jihadist volunteers who have the specialist skills and are coming to Iraq to fight Americans on Arab soil.
'As regards these people, the US has dangerously underestimated how important Iraq has become to them. They are drawn not only by the fact that US and British troops are in a country with two of the most important Islamic shrines after Mecca, at Karbala and Najaf, but because Iraq represents an ancient and powerful idea of Arab culture and history.'
It is perhaps Wahabi jihadists - a puritanical Islamic group from Saudi Arabia who regard the Shia rituals as idolatrous - that may have helped to carry out Friday's bombing.
Saudi nationals in Iraq, who had entered the country to attack US forces, as well as Yemenis, Sudanese and Syrians, have already been captured, according to the US Deputy Secretary of State.
But it is the Iraqis themselves who pose the greatest headache for the coalition forces, confronted in recent weeks with the realization that those behind the attacks are far better organized than they had at first appreciated.
The coalition's intelligence experts have discovered that the former Iraqi intelligence services are playing a much greater role than appreciated, with senior officials orchestrating attacks, with access to funds, arms and weapons. And in many cases they are hiring poorer Iraqis to carry out the raids.
It is an analysis shared by the Iraqi National Congress (INC). 'Saddam pulled off one of the biggest bank robberies in history, stealing an estimated $1.2 billion,' says Zaab Sethna, aide-de-camp to INC leader Ahmed Chalabi. 'We know some of that money was left in the country to pay for the resistance. More important is that they also have the weapons. Most important of all, they have the people.'
More important, it seems, the new terrorists blossoming in Bremer's new Iraq - the conquest of which was supposed to mark an end to terrorism - have the will and the capability to act.
139 US troops killed in the Iraq war.
143 American military personnel killed since the 'end' of major combat operations on 1 May.
65 of those killed since the May declaration were killed in action; the rest were killed as a result of 'non-hostile situations' - vehicle crashes and other accidents.
563 American troops wounded in action.
19 British soldiers killed in combat
31 British soldiers killed in non-hostile situations
11 British soldiers killed since the May declaration.
9,000+ Estimated number of Iraqi casualties.
2,300+ Estimated number of Iraqi troops killed in fighting in and around Baghdad alone.
7,000+ Estimated number of Iraqi civilians believed to have been killed during the conflict.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003