The US-led coalition authority restored sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government Monday two days earlier than scheduled to outflank insurgents threatening to mark the handover with a heightened campaign of violence.
The surprise handover illustrates the damaging impact of the year-old insurgency on efforts to return stability to Iraq and the challenges that lie ahead for its new government.
"This is a historical day," Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said during the handover ceremony. "We feel we are capable of controlling the security situation."
But it will be no easy task to curb an insurgency that has evolved over the past year from classic guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks against coalition troops to a fluid multidimensional campaign against a wide array of targets.
Many analysts expect the violence to worsen in coming months as the insurgents attempt to cripple an untested government. "I have never seen an insurgency that has been successfully defeated in months," says Bruce Hoffman, acting director of the Rand Corporation's Center for Middle East Public Policy. "That's why insurgencies are so attractive to our opponents. Insurgents don't have to win, they just have to avoid losing, and that means they can prolong any conflict they're involved in."
In the past few weeks, militants have struck using numerous methods in a concerted effort to undermine the transfer of power. The attacks have included roadside bomb ambushes, drive-by hijackings and ambushes, kidnappings, mortar and rocket bombardments, suicide car bombings, simultaneous multiple bomb attacks nationwide, sabotage of oil pipelines, shooting at aircraft, and assassinations of government officials and political and religious figures.
Some analysts maintain that the coalition forces - from now on known as the Multi-National Forces-Iraq (MNF) - failed to appreciate the strategic threat of the insurgency at the onset and have been inconsistent in their response.
"The insurgents have the initiative and are a constantly dynamic force whereas the coalition forces have been cast very much in a responsive mode," Dr. Hoffman says.
The US military lists its opponents as a mix of former regime loyalists, Iraqi nationalists and Islamists, common criminals freed from jail by Saddam Hussein, and foreign Islamic militants. But the level of coordination between them, if any, remains unclear.
In general, many analysts believe that former Iraqi Army Baathists conduct the bulk of daily attacks while foreign Islamic militants carry out the more spectacular suicide car bombings.
Many of the latter attacks have been pinned on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant who heads the Al-Tawhid and Al-Jihad group. The US military believes that Zarqawi is holed up in the flash point town of Fallujah west of Baghdad and has launched several airstrikes against buildings suspected of being Tawhid hideouts. Still, the airstrikes appear to have done little to curb Zarqawi's activities. He claimed responsibility last week for a series of simultaneous bomb attacks around the country, which killed almost 100 people.
While the suicide bomb attacks capture the headlines, many attacks simply go unreported, especially those against coalition troops in the remoter areas of Iraq.
A senior military official admits that "there are 35 to 40, sometimes up to 60 or more attacks a day" against coalition troops. That rate is even higher than the surge of attacks in November when the insurgency took hold.
Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of the US Central Command, has likened the insurgency in Iraq to "a classical guerrilla-type campaign." But Mr. Hoffman, also a senior fellow at the US Military Academy's Combating Terrorism Center, says that General Abizaid underestimated the opposition.
"We are not talking about ragtag insurgents with castoff weapons and a minimum of military training taking on established militaries, which was often the case in the past," he says. "The former regime elements were highly trained.... Their harassment is more than harassment. It has strategic weight to it because [their] attacks eat away at the heart and fiber of Iraqi security and unity."
A second error of the coalition forces, analysts say, is the lack of resolve in dealing with the insurgency. Two key examples came in April with the offensive against militants in Fallujah and the crackdown against the maverick Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In response to the killing and mutilation of four American private security contractors, US Marines fought a bloody two-week battle against the insurgents, causing heavy casualties among civilians and rebels. One former resistance fighter told the Monitor that his entire group was wiped out during the clashes.
But despite vows to crush the rebels, the coalition forces ended up striking a compromise that saw the Marines pulling back, leaving the policing of the town to a battalion of Iraqi soldiers. Since then, Fallujah has become a pan-Arab symbol of anti-US resistance, a no-go area for foreigners where Islamic militants impose a Taliban-style rule and the Iraqi battalion remains confined to its barracks.
"The Fallujah resistance sparked the emotions and touched the hearts of people throughout the Arab world because it was one of the few recent instances of Arabs making a stand on their home ground and fighting to defend their community in the face of almost certain death," says Rami Khouri, executive editor of Beirut's Daily Star newspaper.
Mr. Sadr launched his uprising after the coalition authorities shut down his newspaper and arrested a senior aide. The rebellion ignited the Shiite towns of Najaf, Kerbala, and Kufa and saw heavy fighting in the Sadr City slum in Baghdad. The coalition said it would "capture or kill" Sadr, but did neither. Again, the fighting ended with a series of fragile cease-fires. The rebellion has elevated the youthful cleric to a role of powerful opposition figure.
"Our indecision and our hesitancy breathed life into the insurgency and also sent a very worrying message about our resolve," Hoffman says.
Analysts expect the insurgency to continue and possibly intensify during the fraught seven-month mandate of the new Iraqi government. Mr. Allawi has vowed to crush the militants, warning of possible martial law and delaying elections slated for January. But his government lacks the means to confront the militants and will have to rely initially on the MNF while Iraq's security forces are trained and organized. That risks reinforcing the impression that the new government is little more than an American surrogate.
Most Iraqis say they are prepared to give the new government a chance, although that conditional support may not last if the violence continues. US military officials hope that sympathy for the insurgents will decline as the new government takes charge, particularly if the attacks continue to be directed against Iraqi civilians.
Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who is overseeing the creation of the new Iraqi army, says that the nationalist element among the insurgents already is "diminishing."
"That motivation has to lose its appeal over time," he says.
However, it is the Sunni extremists that pose the greater long-term threat. But eradicating the Sunni diehards will not prove simple. "The Sunni Islamic resistance are not accepting what has been handed to Iraq by the Americans," says Nizar Hamzeh, professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. "Whatever means you use here [against the insurgents] is not going to work and the only outcome is a clash."