With British public and media attention focused on operations in Afghanistan and the Iraq inquiry charting its methodical, low-key course in London, the actual war in Iraq seems very far away. But yesterday's multiple car bombings across Baghdad came as a sharp reminder that hostilities in Iraq are far from over. The vast majority of British troops may have come home, and the tens of thousands of US troops are progressively being confined to bases before their eventual withdrawal, but Iraq is not yet a haven of calm.
More than 120 people were killed in the latest explosions, and almost 500 injured. In all cases the targets were police or official buildings. Although in general the level of violence has declined since 2007, the number of attacks has recently started to rise.
The synchronised bombings may betray – as they were perhaps intended to – the hand of al-Qa'ida. Which could in turn suggest that, forced out of its strongholds in Afghanistan and, more recently, the tribal areas of Pakistan, al-Qa'ida may be seeking, and finding, a welcome elsewhere. Whether or not al-Qa'ida or some other group is implicated, however, is secondary to the destabilising impact the attacks were clearly designed to have.
Coinciding as they did with the planned passage of legislation for the country's next election – at a session of parliament which became an emergency session yesterday – the message was unambiguous. The next few months, as the election nears, will be perilous ones for Iraq.
The aim of the bombers is none other than to sow public panic and expose the government as too weak to safeguard people's security. In the fearful atmosphere that would result, many people would be deterred from voting, so discrediting the whole process – and tipping Iraq back to the brink of civil war, where it was as recently as two years ago. For the many Iraqis for whom life has started to improve after the ravages of a war they did not seek, this would be nothing short of another tragedy.
The rights and the wrongs of the war are one thing: the arguments, at least as far as the highly divisive British government policy of the time is concerned, are being rehearsed again at the Iraq inquiry – and, although we have grave misgivings about the material that might remain secret, it would be wrong to prejudge the outcome of that inquiry. But there must be no doubt at all about the need to give Iraqis the best possible chance to rebuild their country and their lives.
Now that British troops have been withdrawn, the southern provinces of Iraq are now the responsibility of Iraqis. The US withdrawal – orderly, if necessarily slow – from the rest of the country is well in train. That the withdrawal was announced by a president with an express electoral mandate to do so means that it is very unlikely to be reversed, however difficult the situation may become on the ground.
The priority for Iraqis – government, military and civilians alike – must be to maximise the possibility of calm preparations for the parliamentary election. According to the initial timetable, voting was supposed to take place in January, but political disagreement means the date has already slipped. The longer the election is delayed, however, the greater the opportunities for those who would lose from peace to make trouble. Any descent into new disorder must be resisted at all costs.