Iraq: US offensive repulsed

After three bloody years and countless deaths, parcelled out daily in the tolls of bombs and gunfights and the tallies of throats slit in the night, it can be hard to argue that anything much is changing in Iraq. And yet, while world attention has been on other things, important developments have happened, for the worse. This was to be the summer when the Americans finally got a grip on the insurgency in Baghdad, and also on the sectarian war under way there. With US midterm elections due in late autumn, a success of this kind was badly needed, and so in June US troops were transferred to the city from garrisons across the country to bolster the effort.

The results? July alone brought an astonishing 2,625 bomb attacks or attempted bomb attacks in Iraq - a record. Almost three-quarters of these were aimed against US forces, and though American deaths were slightly down, more than 500 US soldiers were wounded, twice the figure in January. This month there has been a steady flow of mayhem, and it is clear that the US offensive has failed. Worse still for the Americans, according to a recent New York Times report, the Pentagon accepts that the insurgents are now stronger in numbers and enjoy wider support than at any time since the invasion in 2003.

Meanwhile, the sectarian slaughter continues and the "low-intensity civil war" between Shias and Sunnis of which Britain's outgoing ambassador to Iraq, William Patey, warned just weeks ago, appears under way. One hundred people a day are dying by violence in Iraq, according to the country's health ministry, and most of them are victims of this conflict. On 13 August an attack on Zafaraniya, a predominantly Shia district of southern Baghdad, left 57 dead and 148 injured. An Iraqi government spokes man said: "The attack started with a number of Katyusha rockets, followed by a car bomb, more rockets on a post office, a motorcycle bomb near a library and mortar rounds near an Armenian church." A week later, snipers positioned on rooftops opened fire on a huge crowd of Shia pilgrims who were passing through a Sunni district on their way to the shrine of Imam Musa Kadhim in Baghdad. Panic and a stampede ensued, and then a street battle: the toll was 17 dead and 253 injured.

Sunnis, too, are dying in large numbers. After many months of ethnic cleansing in Baghdad's poorer districts there are suggestions that both sides are now throwing everything into an endgame: the attempt to gain outright control of the capital. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's 24-point reconciliation plan, launched in June, is a dead letter.

George Bush's response? "If you think it's bad now, imagine what Iraq would look like if the United States leaves before this government can defend itself and sustain itself."