U.S. and Iraqi officials have voiced cautious optimism that the 2-month-old security operation in Iraq might be working. A suicide bombing at parliament and another that sent a Baghdad bridge crashing into the Tigris River delivered a powerful message that the American-led crackdown may be too late.
The attack inside Iraq's parliament, which uses a Saddam-era convention center in the U.S.-guarded Green Zone, occurred despite considerably hardened security in the compound since the beginning of the latest security drive against Baghdad's violence.
Thursday's bombings were emblematic of the struggle U.S. and Iraqi troops are fighting not only in Baghdad but in many areas throughout the country. Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen who've held power for months or years are fighting for their turf ferociously, resorting to classic guerrilla hit-and-run tactics.
Compounding the problems facing the U.S. and Iraqi security operation is al-Qaida in Iraq, the most violent organization in the larger Sunni insurgency and the most difficult to defend against because it has an apparently full stable of suicide bombers. Such attacks, like the ones Thursday, can be virtually impossible to stop.
The symbolism of the parliament bombing in the Green Zone, especially because it is seen as a safe haven in an otherwise chaotic and extraordinarily dangerous city, was a public relations blow to the Bush administration's bid to expand U.S. troop strength and keep the force in Iraq.
U.S. President George W. Bush and U.S. commanders in Iraq all say the American effort to restore calm to the capital and surrounding regions needs at least until the end of summer. But Thursday's attacks and other evidence suggest the job could take considerably longer.
The parliament attack compounds other problems bedeviling Iraq.
The Bush administration has demanded that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meet a series of difficult legislative benchmarks to get the country on track. But none of them, especially passage of a law to share oil income throughout the country among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, is anywhere near going onto the books.
An attack like the one in parliament likely will throw the recalcitrant legislative body into further turmoil and make quick action on any disputed measure unlikely.
The current security drive, orchestrated by the White House in conjunction with al-Maliki, will see an additional 30,000 American forces in the country by the end of May. The stated purpose is to calm the capital sufficiently so that the politicians can deal with the extraordinarily difficult tasks before them.
But the parliament bombing is certain to only harden positions. That could make compromise — already difficult — nearly impossible.
And beyond that, the parliament attack overshadowed the incredible bombing of one of Baghdad's nine Tigris River spans, an incident that would have been difficult to imagine even on a particularly violent day in Baghdad.
The two attacks draw stark attention to the country's deepening Sunni-Shiite divide, and the difficulty of spanning them. The bridge fell physically, but was also a symbol of how Baghdad's once vibrant and mixed neighborhoods now slowly are becoming almost solely Sunni or Shiite, with the Tigris as boundary, the AP reports.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates raised the possibility on Thursday of a reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq by late 2007 or early 2008, saying the Pentagon's decision to keep combat troops in place longer than expected got the "bad news" out of the way.
"It gets all the bad news out at once because the new news that may come sometime next winter is, oh by the way you don't have to go," Gates said.
Asked if he thought a drawdown by winter was a real possibility, Gates said, "Yes."
"I think it's a possibility," he told reporters en route to Washington after a meeting of some NATO Defence ministers in Canada. He added any decision on troop levels would be driven by conditions on the ground in Iraq.
Gates' comments came hours after a deadly suicide bombing in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone that killed eight in Iraq's parliament.
Bush administration officials condemned the attack but dismissed suggestions that it signalled a failure in the U.S.-led security crackdown in Iraq's capital.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said attacks such as Thursday's bombing should be expected as U.S. forces push ahead in Baghdad, Reuters reports.
Prepared by Alexander Timoshik