Ten US Marines on foot patrol have been killed and 11 wounded by a roadside bomb near Fallujah, west of Baghdad, in one of the most lethal recent attacks on American soldiers in Iraq.
The attack, using large artillery shells wired together, brings to 95 the number of US soldiers killed since the start of last month. Some 2,123 members of the US military have died in Iraq since the invasion.
The explosion near Fallujah, captured by the US Marines from resistance fighters in a bloody battle in November 2003, emphasises the US Army's lack of progress in defeating the two-and-a-half-year insurgency. The Pentagon has so far been unable to find a counter-measure to very large bombs, often made from old 155mm heavy artillery shells which once belonged to the Iraqi army. Insurgents commonly remove the tip of the shell and put in a blasting cap wired to a battery. A command wire or a remote control device is then used to detonate the explosives.
President George Bush said this week that the newly trained Iraqi army would gradually replace US troops allowing them to be brought home.
But US, British and Iraqi officials are increasingly nervous that the general election on 15 December will bring Iraq closer to break-up and more violence.
"My worry is that the election will open the way to disintegration," said Ghassan Attiyah, an Iraqi political historian and commentator. "If the present government comes back into power the country may begin to fragment." He says that the minority Sunni Arab community is increasingly terrified of the Shia majority which dominates the government.
The Shia won control of the interior ministry, which has more armed men under its control than the defence ministry, earlier this year. Sunni leaders accuse the ministry of using the police commandos as death squads against them.
The present Iraqi government, under Ibrahim al-Jaafari as Prime Minister, depends on an alliance between the Kurds and the Shia religious parties which triumphed in the election last January. The Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the poll but will not do so in two weeks' time.
The American and British governments are making desperate efforts to avoid the break-up of Iraq by promoting the candidacy of Iyad Allawi, the former Iraqi prime minister, as a secular nationalist who will hold the country together. A poster bearing Mr Allawi's avuncular face stares down from posters all over Baghdad, and bears the slogan: "Strong government, good security, Iraqi nationalist."
British and American election advisers have been brought in to assist Mr Allawi but their efforts may be in vain in the face of the harsh ethnic and sectarian mathematics of Iraqi politics. Although there are no exact figures the Shia make up 60 per cent of the 26 million Iraqi population and the Kurds and the Sunni 20 per cent each.
Washington and London are hoping that Mr Allawi will get enough seats in the 275-member National Assembly to take a senior position even if he cannot become Prime Minister again. One suggestion is that he should be in charge of a "super-security ministry", but this is unlikely to be acceptable to the religious parties grouped in the Shia List.
The government of Mr Jaafari is not seen as competent and is not popular. But he has recently made an alliance with Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical Shia clerical leader, and could well be Prime Minister again. "I think the Shia List will win 110 to 115 seats," predicted one political leader. "At the end of the day the Shia masses will vote for them because they are frightened of the return of the Baath."
The point is made crudely in one poster showing half the face of Saddam Hussein and half that of Mr Allawi with the question underneath: "What is the difference between the two?"
The Sunni Arab lists are likely to win some 50 to 55 seats, the Kurds around 50 and Mr Allawi some 25 seats according to one assessment. Ahmed Chalabi, the Deputy Prime Minister, though highly influential in the government, looks likely to win between five and 15 seats.
The Shia religious parties are unlikely to accept any diminution in their power. Sheikh Sadr al-Deer al-Qubbanchi, a leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said bluntly yesterday in a sermon: "The Shia are the majority so they should hold most of the positions in the ministries and elsewhere." He said the main Sunni political party was a front for Baathists and added that the unity of the Shia in Iraq and Iran, where they are by far the largest sect, would be unbroken.
Sunni Iraqis are dismayed to find that the interior ministry has banned all non-Iraqi Arabs from entering the country during the election period, though Iranians and Turks will be allowed in.Reuse content