The sixth anniversary of the murder of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative in Baghdad, fell last week. It was marked by a series of huge explosions across the city, killing dozens of civilians and injuring many more. The brutality and nihilism that the attacks exemplified were horrifyingly familiar. Yet while the destructiveness of terrorism in Iraq is undimmed, the country's politics and security have altered dramatically in six years. The change explains much about the evolution of the terrorists' campaign.
Iraq still depends on America. The Iraqi security forces are not yet able consistently to anticipate and thwart terrorist attacks. But Iraq has a functioning government that enjoys popular legitimacy. The country remains scarred by divisions, but is no longer in a state of emerging civil war. The terror campaign that formerly struck directly at US power is now an attack on a recognisable and confident Iraqi state. A successful counter-insurgency strategy by the US has demonstrably produced greater security for Iraq's people, which is a prerequisite of national reconciliation.
Last week saw the worst day of violence in Iraq since the withdrawal of US forces from cities in June. It was clearly directed towards the government of Nuri Al Maliki. Two of the most deadly attacks targeted the Foreign Ministry and the Finance Ministry. It poses a huge security challenge for Al Maliki's government in the months before parliamentary elections next January. But consider Iraq's recent history.
When he took office in 2006, Al Maliki was little known in the West. American policymakers feared that he was a weak figure, tied to Shia sectarianism and unable to defend Iraq's institutions from an alliance of Baathist remnants and theocratic fanatics. In practice, he is now a big figure on the country's political stage. He has centralised the Government and intervened in the appointment of military officers.
There is a risk of excessive concentration of power and even of authoritarianism in Iraq, but it can be contained. It is, moreover, an altogether different problem from the one that afflicted the country for much of the past six years. Critics of the US-led intervention to oust Saddam Hussein have long maintained that the principal beneficiary was Iran, whose regional position was strengthened. Yet Al Maliki eventually shook off Shia influence and ordered the security forces to confront Al Mahdi Army, of Moqtada Al Sadr, the principal supporter of Iran's regime. Local elections in Iraq in January this year showed a move away from religious parties and towards secular nationalists.
Much of the improvement in Iraq dates from the change in US strategy adopted in 2007. No longer were US forces contriving prematurely to hand over responsibility for establishing security to Iraqi forces. Instead a surge in US troops and the co-option of Sunni militias (the so-called awakening councils) deprived Al Qaeda and its supporters of sanctuaries in Iraq.
The mass murders committed last week fit a grotesque strategy. As the Obama Administration plans a withdrawal of US forces, Sunni terrorists clearly wish to demonstrate an ability to destroy a sovereign, self-sufficient Iraq. They might once have succeeded, in the chaos of postwar US planning. They will not do it now.