The car bombs that ripped into hundreds of residents of Baghdad over the weekend are a message that if politics cannot take place within the parliament, then violence will take place on the street.
It takes a certain death toll for Iraq to make it back on to the headlines. Despite the presence of some 120,000 US troops (and 100 or so British naval trainers who were recently let back into the country) Iraq appears to be old news. In many people's minds it is yesterday's conflict; the surge was a success and the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is a democratically mandated strongman who is bringing economic success to the country -- or so the narrative goes.
Yet the carnage continues. At around 10am on Sunday at the busy Baghdad intersection between the ministry of justice and the ministry of municipalities, a pair of car bombs exploded with such power and ferocity that they managed to blast away the blast walls in one of the most heavily guarded areas of the country. The toll currently stands at 155 dead and more than 500 wounded; the worst single attack in two years.
While many news reports include the line that this attack bears all the hallmarks of al-Qaida, the bombings should be placed into a more reasoned context that includes the merry-go-round of Iraqi politics and the similar attacks on government ministry buildings last August.
The breakdown in Syrian-Iraqi relations that followed the August explosions provided a smokescreen covering the real message the bombings were designed to deliver: that highest security zones can be attacked with simultaneous bombs at the approximate time of high-level government meetings, and that the bombers can strike at a time and location of their choosing.
General Ray Odierno warned a week before these bombings that militant groups were likely to conduct a bloody campaign in the months ahead as Iraqis prepare for national elections at the beginning of next year:
It's clear that al-Qaida and other groups do not want the elections to occur. What I think they will try to do is discourage people from voting by undermining the authority of the government of Iraq with attacks, so that people lose faith in the democratic process.
The fragmented political system of the "new" Iraq has led to ministries being treated as the fiefdoms of the parties in charge of them. The August attacks targeted the foreign ministry (Kurdish-run) and the finance ministry (Shia-run). The latest attacks against the Shia ministry of municipalities and the Kurdish (but independent) ministry of justice, point to perpetrators from within the much-becalmed Sunni insurgency.
The post-2003 history of Iraq shows that although Sunnis boycotted the elections of January 2005, a change in the provincial weighting of the voting system brought many back in the December 2005 legislative election. Unlike previous sectarian attacks against religious sites, or market attacks designed to inflict the largest toll of casualties, these latest attacks are a symptom of a weak and inert government that has been unable to effectively integrate the Sunni "Sons of Iraq," nor provide them with promised electoral compromises.
Indeed, the attacks are most likely aimed at obtaining concessions for Sunni groups and improved levels of inclusion within the government, contrary to Odierno's suggestion that they are simply an attempt to undermine it. Remember that the surge strategy sought to reconnect the insurgency to the government, through political devolution, reconciliation and gradual state patronage to some 70,000-100,000 members of the Sunni Sons of Iraq.
With a rerun of Afghan elections dominating the headlines, the road to January's Iraqi elections may prove equally bloody unless the Sunnis feel they are getting a fair slice of the power cake. The necessary politics of compromise and national unity are as fragile as they are slow-moving in Iraq, and with the same issues of oil, federalism, provincial borders and reconciliation still festering as challenges that the political system has been simple unable to overcome, violence has been an inevitable consequence. As a report into increasing violence in Iraq recently warned: "Washington might be on its way out, but its hands will be full even as it heads for the exit."