WASHINGTON -- An unchastened insurgency sowed devastation across Iraq Wednesday as experts here said the country is either on the verge of civil war or already in the middle of it.
In the course of the day: Four car bombs detonated in Baghdad; a man wearing explosives at an army recruitment center in Hawija, north of Baghdad, blew himself and many others up; a car bomb exploded in a marketplace in Tikrit, north of Baghdad; and the country's largest fertilizer plant was heavily damaged by a bomb in the usually quiet southern city of Basra. Meanwhile, U.S. Marines were winding up a remarkable pitched battle against surprisingly well-equipped and determined insurgents on Iraq's western border. Some 76 Iraqis were reported killed and more than 120 wounded in the one day of violence.
With security experts reporting that no major road in the country was safe to travel, some Iraq specialists speculated that the Sunni insurgency was effectively encircling the capital and trying to cut it off from the north, south and west, where there are entrenched Sunni communities. East of Baghdad is a mostly unpopulated desert bordering on Iran.
"It's just political rhetoric to say we are not in a civil war. We've been in a civil war for a long time," said Pat Lang, the former top Middle East intelligence official at the Pentagon.
Other experts said Iraq is on the verge of a full-scale civil war with civilians on both sides being slaughtered. Incidents in the past two weeks south of Baghdad, with apparently retaliatory killings of Sunni and Shia civilians, point in that direction, they say.
Also of concern were media accounts that hard-line Shia militia members are being deployed to police hard-line Sunni communities such as Ramadi, east of Baghdad, which specialists on Iraq said was a recipe for disaster.
"I think we are really on the edge" of all-out civil war, said Noah Feldman, a New York University law professor who worked for the U.S. coalition in Iraq.
He said the insurgency has been "getting stronger every passing day. When the violence recedes, it is a sign that they are regrouping." While there is a chance the current flare of violence is the insurgency's last gasp, he said, "I have not seen any coherent evidence that we are winning against the insurgency."
"Everything we thought we knew about the insurgency obviously is flawed," said Judith Kipper of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It was quiet for a little while, and here it is back full force all over the country, and that is very dark news."
The increased violence coincides with the approval of a new, democratic government two weeks ago. But instead of bringing the country together, the new government seems to have further alienated even moderate Sunnis who believe they have only token representation.
"That is a joke," said Sunni politician Saad Jabouri, until recently governor of Diyala Province, in an interview here. "The only people they allowed in the government are ones who think like them," he said of the majority Shia faction, who mostly come from Islamic parties.
Military and civilian experts said the insurgency seemed designed to outlast the patience of the American and Iraqi peoples.
"I just think this Sunni thing is going to be pretty hard," said Phebe Marr, a leading U.S. Iraq expert reached in the protected Green Zone in Baghdad. "The American public has to get its expectations down to something reasonable."
Lang said there is new evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime carefully prepared in advance for the insurgency, with former Iraqi officers at the core of each group. They are well coordinated and have consistently adjusted their strategy, he said.
Now the 140,000-plus U.S. troops in the country are mainly "a nuisance" factor in the insurgents' overall goal of preventing the new government from consolidating.
"They understand what the deal is here," Lang said, "to start applying maximum pressure to the economy and the government and make sure it will not work." Their roadside bombs are intended to keep U.S. forces inside their bases, he said.
All the while the insurgents are gaining strength, he said. "The longer they keep going on the better they will get," said Lang, a student of military history. "The best school of war is war."
The Sunni insurgents could win the battle if they persevere long enough to sour U.S. voters, Feldman said.
He said, "There is no evidence whatsoever that they cannot win."
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.