On Sunday 25 October, two car bombs exploded in the heart of Baghdad during the morning rush hour. As we went to press, the death toll stood at 155, with another 700 injured, in Iraq's bloodiest attacks since 2007. An al-Qaeda cell, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility on Tuesday, saying it wanted to punish the Shia government in Baghdad and its "ally" Iran.
The attack aimed to destabilise the state in the run-up to the general election scheduled for 16 January. The poll is already beset by problems. The first deadline for reforms to electoral law has gone, with the parties in deadlock as they try to ensure their own share of power. The main dispute has been over the suggestion that voters should cast ballots for individual candidates, rather than closed party lists. While all parties claim to support open lists, opposition has been fierce in private: closed lists help established parties to retain seats.
Another problem is voting in oil-rich Kirkuk. The Kurds are demanding that this province be incorporated in their autonomous region in the north, despite the opposition of its Turkmen and Arab populations. The issue has been so intractable that Kirkuk was left out of local elections in February for fear of violence. It is unclear how reform would help.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shia cleric, warned just before the attack that delaying elections "will lead to political and constitutional vacuum and security chaos". It could also hinder US plans for a complete withdrawal by the end of 2011.
The western media have largely ignored Iraq since the US handed control of cities to local forces three months ago, allowing the impression that
the country is on the road to recovery and self-determination. But 1,891 civilians were killed in the first six months of 2009; 1.6 million people are internally displaced - a lack of clean water, fuel or electricity preventing their return home. Unemployment is at 50 per cent, and just 19 per cent of people have proper sewerage.
While stability is so far off, the Iraqi government's plea to be allowed to restart the country's nuclear programme is unlikely to be looked on kindly by the international community