Patrick Cockburn: Sunni bombers will not restart the war

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The slaughter by car bombers of over 100 civilians in Baghdad proves that al-Qa'ida in Iraq still has the capability to launch devastating multiple attacks on soft targets. The bombings show that for all the Iraqi government's claims of improved security the country remains one of the most dangerous in the world.

The bombers, who last struck with spectacular blasts like this in August and October, clearly calculate that they can destabilise the government by husbanding their resources and striking about every two months. There will be rage in Baghdad and allegations that the security forces are implicated, but bombings like the ones yesterday are almost impossible to prevent, particularly if a suicide bomber is involved. When US troops were manning checkpoints in Baghdad there were even more bombings than today.

The bombers can prove that Iraq is still insecure, but they should not be able to destabilise the government. The wars in Iraq between 2003 and 2007 had winners and losers and these are unlikely to change. Al-Qa'ida draws such support as it has from the Sunni Arab community, which was predominant under Saddam Hussein, but it has lost power to the Shia Arabs and the Kurds. Al Qa'ida may want to reignite the Sunni-Shia civil war but it is unlikely to be able to do so because so many of the Sunni in greater Baghdad, once the main mixed area in Iraq, have fled.

In a study for Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, Dr Michael Izady concludes that the Sunni, once 20 per cent of Iraq's population, may now be only 12 per cent thanks to emigration to Syria and Jordan. He says that Sunni in Baghdad may be down to a few hundred thousand out of five million. The Iraqi capital is now an overwhelmingly Shia city. It would be difficult and dangerous for the Sunni to relaunch the sectarian civil war in which they were routed a couple of years ago. At that time 3,000 bodies a month were turning up at Baghdad morgue of which three-quarters were of Sunni, says Dr Izady.

The Iraqi election is now to be held on 6 March after a postponement brought about by a veto from the Sunni vice-president. He had wanted more Sunni refugees to be able to vote and the Kurds said they had not got their fair share of extra parliamentary seats allocated through an increase in population as measured through the number of ration cards distributed. But the lesson of the provincial election in January this year is that Iraqis very largely vote along communal lines, though they often change which party within their community they vote for.

The Iraqi government has made itself more vulnerable to allegations that security is not as good as it claims by overstating the extent to which Iraq has returned to peace. Al-Qa'ida can still recruit and despatch suicide bombers and has the intelligence network to work out how to target government ministries. More ominously, it has been able to assassinate important government intelligence chiefs who are surrounded by heavy security.

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