The handover of power in Iraq - now a mere 10 days away - appeared to be in a state of renewed crisis yesterday after a US air strike on homes in Fallujah brought to an end a week in which large-scale violence once again boiled to the surface.
Around 20 civilians, including eight women and children, are said to have died in the attack, which follows Thursday's devastating car bomb outside a Baghdad army recruitment center.
The two incidents come after a string of smaller car bombings, the assassination of two government officials and the security chief of the main oil company in Kirkuk in the north, an escalating series of clashes between US forces and Iraqi militants around Baquba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, and a concerted series of attacks on the country's oil supply system which have temporarily cut off all exports from the southern fields around the port of Basra.
These events have made for the bloodiest period in Iraq for several weeks and underline what US and Iraqi officials have known all along - that the 30 June handover is fraught with risks as well as political opportunities.
The stakes have been raised because more than one country's future depends on the outcome. Iraq is the biggest vulnerability facing George Bush in his battle for re-election in November.
After the disastrous - and continuing - revelations of torture inflicted on Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, after the damaging conclusions of the commission looking into the attacks of 11 September 2001, which has dismissed White House claims of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qa'ida, after the embarrassing failure to find Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, President Bush desperately needs to offer the US electorate some indication that things are progressing in the right direction.
For several weeks, he could plausibly make the case that the violence in Iraq was abating. A disastrous few weeks in April and early May - when Fallujah was under siege, the revelations were made about Abu Ghraib and the first spate of kidnappings and killings of western contractors took place - was followed by a relative lull. The US withdrawal from Fallujah, in particular, appeared to ease tensions and even led to a de facto truce earlier this month with the Sunni resistance figurehead Muqtada al-Sadr.
The better news has had an effect on President Bush's approval ratings. An opinion poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press last week showed that 57 per cent of Americans thought things were going well in Iraq - a sharp increase from the 46 per cent found a month earlier.
Bush's sunny optimism on the campaign trail may, however, become harder to maintain if the violence continues. Yesterday's raid on Fallujah is troubling because of the raw memories it has stirred up of the hundreds of Iraqi civilians killed there by the Americans in April. It bore the hallmark of a revenge attack straight out of the Israeli book - engendering an incensed reaction similar to that of Palestinians on the receiving of Israeli air raids in Gaza and the West Bank.
The United States has blamed the suspected al-Qa'ida operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for the recent car bombings, including Thursday's attack in Baghdad. US officials have also been saying for several days that they suspect al-Zarqawi is hiding out in Fallujah.
The impact of these events on US public opinion remains to be seen. Media coverage of the Fallujah raid was relatively muted yesterday, in part because the US military refused to comment or give details of what happened and in part because the news was dominated by the beheading of the kidnapped military contractor Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia.
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