The orgy of sectarian killings now engulfing Iraq was threatening yesterday to bring down the country's floundering civilian government, in a crisis rapidly moving beyond the power of either American or regional diplomatic efforts to contain it.
The terrible events of the past few days have banished the last doubts that the country is now in the throes of a civil war between its Sunni and Shia communities. October was already the bloodiest month of the war thus far for Iraqi civilians, with the loss of 3,709 lives. November bodes to be deadlier yet.
Barely 24 hours after more than 200 people died in Thursday's car bombings in Baghdad's Sadr City slum district an atrocity almost certainly the work of Sunni insurgents Shia militiamen exacted revenge by attacking Sunni mosques in the capital and the city of Baquba, north east of Baghdad. Dozens of people by some accounts were killed, with Iraqi government forces either refusing or powerless to intervene.
Yesterday the remorseless cycle of violence continued, with the discovery of 21 bodies, including a 12-year-old boy, in a Shia village north of Baghdad. Elsewhere, a suicide car bomber near Fallujah killed three Iraqi civilians and an American soldier. Such incidents, moreover, give only a partial idea of the violence. Others, unrecorded, happen on a daily basis.
As the "ethnic cleansing" between communities intensifies, an estimated 1,000 Iraqis are fleeing their homes every day, either for a safer region within the country, or abroad. Across swathes of Baghdad, fearful residents have spent recent nights guarding their homes, terrified they would be the next victims.
By Friday the chaos was such that Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi President, had to postpone a summit meeting in Tehran with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, because Baghdad airport was closed, thanks to a curfew imposed by the overwhelmed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The meeting was tentatively postponed until today, but the airport closure was later extended until Monday.
The carnage has continued. Religious leaders on both sides of the sectarian divide appealed for calm, while US and Iraqi security forces claimed to have killed 58 insurgents yesterday in clashes north of the capital. The US military also said it had destroyed a factory making roadside bombs, the weapon of choice against American forces, of whom at least 2,870 have died since the March 2003 invasion.
In Washington, a spokesman for President George Bush, declared that " these killers will not succeed". It was an outrage, he said, that " these terrorists are targeting innocent civilians in a brazen effort to topple a democratically elected government". Once again, however, he refused to admit a civil war was raging, describing the situation merely as "serious". This is despite the growing sense on the ground, and among diplomats, that the violence had passed the point of no return, with much of the death and destruction carried out by militias linked to parties within the government coalition.
The mayhem on the ground is matched by the diplomatic shambles. Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, was in Saudi Arabia yesterday for talks with King Abdullah on the Iraq crisis, in an apparent effort to have Riyadh use its tribal connections to rein in the Sunni militias. And this week Mr Bush is due to meet Mr Maliki in Jordan. The meeting had been intended to affirm US support for the Iraqi leader, after weeks of complaints in Washington about the Iraqi Prime Minister's failure to take on the Shia militias, including the most powerful of them all, linked to the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Now, however, it has the air of a crisis summit. Not only is the violence spiralling out of control, but Mr Sadr last week threatened to pull his Shia bloc out of the ruling coalition if the Amman meeting goes ahead a move that could deal a fatal blow to the government. The on-off Tehran summit between the leaders of Iraq and Iran points to a perhaps even greater diplomatic problem for Mr Bush. It emphasises his reliance on Shia Iran a founder member of the "Axis of Evil", with which the US has thus far refused to negotiate because of its nuclear ambitions if any solution in Iraq is to be found.
As Baghdad burns, Washington is agog with anticipation of the findings of the commission chaired by the former secretary of state James Baker on ways to extricate the US from the Iraq morass. The report is likely to urge talks with both Iran and Syria, however unpalatable. The US has long accused Damascus of helping Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Now it more or less openly blames Syria for Tuesday's assassination in Beirut of Pierre Gemayel, an anti-Syrian minister in the Lebanese government.
Proof of this involvement would show the country was "not just a supporter of terrorism but a state actor in a terrorist fashion", John Bolton, Washington's ambassador to the UN, declared. Mr Bolton, however, is almost certainly on his way out. Mr Bush, weakened by his mid-term election defeat, is under mounting pressure from victorious Democrats to start pulling US troops out of Iraq even though analysts warn that would only make the violence worse.Reuse content