BAGHDAD Recent bombings have fed fears among Iraqis that their country may be sliding back into violence as U.S. troops prepare to pull out of cities this year and leave entirely by 2012.
Tensions are rising between the Shi'ite Muslim-led government and former Sunni Arab insurgents known as Awakening Councils, who were taken on to the U.S. payroll when they helped cut the violence by turning on al Qaeda.
Below are some ideas from Middle East experts on whether Iraq is again on a slippery slope toward widespread slaughter.
WHO IS BEHIND THE RECENT VIOLENCE?
Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy, Council on Foreign Relations, Washington: "My instinct is that what we're seeing may be tentative Sunni pushback against what some Sunnis see as a threatening consolidation of power by (Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki) without adequate safeguards for them.
"The limited scale of bombings does not indicate a wholesale change in Sunni sentiments - this looks nothing like 2006 or the first half of 2007. I suspect it's closer to a message being sent to Maliki by former Sunni insurgents: they can still act if their interests are not protected, so protect them."
Reidar Visser, editor of www.historiae.org and research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs: "Much of the current discussion about Iraq is focused on security in a very narrow sense and therefore is likely to miss the big picture. Rather than looking at the number of bombs we should be concentrating on progress at the political level, and first and foremost on the question of whether Iraqi politics is becoming less sectarian or not.
"On that score, the provincial elections in January were a step in the right direction. However, in the period since there has been a pushback from the more sectarian forces... Extremists on both sides of the sectarian divide as well as neighboring countries like Iran all seem to want a return to a situation where sectarian identity is at the forefront of politics, and the recent upsurge in bombings may be an attempt by some of these forces to influence events in a more sectarian direction."
Toby Dodge, professor at the University of London: "I think what's driving this forward is Maliki's hubris. I think he was quite successful in taking down aspects of the Awakening Councils in Diyala and in Sunni areas of Baghdad. I think he now is taking that a step further and is going all out to crush them and that must be a causal factor in the renewed violence.
"I think that the balance of power is very precarious. I think that the Iraqi military, especially the police end of it, hasn't got the capacity to do what they need to do. And Maliki hasn't realized his lack of ability."
IS THERE INCREASING VIOLENCE AHEAD FOR IRAQ? Joost Hiltermann, analyst at Brussels-based International Crisis Group: "Security has long been precarious in the absence of political deals. In this vacuum, violence will wax and wane, but is likely to go up the closer we come to legislative elections. AQI (al Qaeda in Iraq) is resurgent, capitalizing on the Sons of Iraq's (the Awakening Councils') continuing alienation from power. Only a new national compact could put a decisive end to violence, as it will marginalize spoilers."
WILL THE UNITED STATES BACK IRAQ NO MATTER WHAT?
David Mack, scholar at Middle East Institute, Washington, and former U.S. deputy under secretary of state for near east affairs: "What is now an intra-Iraq struggle can be resolved by mostly political means and continuing to build non-sectarian national security forces.
"The Iraqis will continue to have U.S. support if they move energetically in those directions. If they do not, we will be unable and unwilling to prevent the conflicts from spinning out of control and inviting hostile foreign intervention."
CAN IRAQI SECURITY FORCES KEEP CONTROL?
Wayne White, adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and former deputy director of the U.S. State Department's Middle East Intelligence Office: "The best characterization for these times is uncertain. Given that resistance to authority and the risk of renewed ethno-sectarian violence is rather persistent in certain areas, and that the neutrality of quite a few Iraqi army units remains questionable, I do not believe the army is ready to assume universal control.
"Were the U.S. to keep to its June 30 withdrawal schedule from populated areas throughout the country, I am convinced violence would rebound. That said, it has become more likely that U.S. forces will be retained in some areas."
WHAT IS THE MEDIUM-TERM OUTLOOK FOR IRAQ?
Anthony Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington: "The fact is that Iraq is likely to experience half a decade of continuing low level violence as it resolves its internal divisions, and creates truly effective security forces and a rule of law.
"There are also good reasons that the U.S. team in Iraq calls the country "fragile." Iraq has not resolved its Arab-Kurdish tensions and Sunni versus Shi'ite divisions. It also has ongoing intra-Shi'ite and intra-Sunni power struggles.
"Any of these divisions can explode into clashes and low level violence, and there still is the potential for a resurgence of al Qaeda and new forms of more serious civil war."
(Reporting by Michael Christie; Editing by Robert Woodward)