WASHINGTON - Yesterday's suicide bomb attacks on Iraqi civilians underscored the dangers of terrorism and civil war lurking in Iraq's future as the Bush administration moves rapidly toward turning the nation over to Iraqi rule.
The attackers, who killed at least 143 people as Shiite Muslims marked the annual religious festival of Ashura in Baghdad and the holy city of Karbala, showed that "terrorist groups who are going to target unprotected civilians can still operate with considerable freedom," said Daniel Byman, a Middle East security specialist at Georgetown University.
If such attacks continue, Iraqis may became frustrated with American forces' inability to ensure their safety and turn more and more to militias organized along ethnic lines for protection. This, in turn, could "lay the groundwork for more civil strife," Byman said.
The coordinated 10 a.m. blasts on Shiite shrines, which wounded more than 400 people, made yesterday the single bloodiest day in Iraq since the end of major hostilities last May, and brought condemnation from leaders around the world.
U.S. officials and Iraqi leaders named an al-Qaida-linked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant, as a key suspect, but did not mention specific evidence tying him to the violence. A State Department official said loyalists of Saddam Hussein's regime could be involved or working with al-Qaida.
Officials and analysts said the aim of the attacks, which totaled at least 10, was to spark civil strife between Iraqi adherents of Shia and Sunni Islam, two branches of the faith that have been theologically opposed to each other for more than a thousand years. Al-Qaida's leader, Osama bin Laden, follows the rigid tenets of Wahabbism, the deeply conservative Sunni sect based in Saudi Arabia.
The Bush administration insisted yesterday that it would stick to its timetable for handing over sovereignty to Iraqis despite the continued security threats. "These terrorists will fail; the timeline for transferring sovereignty remains June 30th," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. "Democracy is taking root and it cannot be turned back."
But McClellan also repeated another Bush pledge - that American forces will remain in the country as long as necessary to make sure Iraq is stable and safe. "We're working hand-in-hand with the Iraqi people to improve the security situation in Iraq, and we will continue to do that until the job is finished. We will be there as long as it takes to finish the job," he said.
Yesterday's attacks showed how difficult it will be to create a lasting peace after a formal transfer of power, and how important a large and enduring American military presence will be in Iraq, diminishing the real significance of the formal transfer of power July 1.
Even before the attacks, L. Paul Bremer III, the top U.S. administrator in Baghdad, remarked on how little will change as a result of the hand-over: In place of the Coalition Provisional Authority, which he heads, "There will be the world's largest embassy here," he noted at a news briefing last week.
"We will have more than 100,000 troops here. The embassy will be responsible for overseeing the spending of $18.6 billion in aid, the largest amount of aid we've ever given any country in history," he said.
"The only thing that really changes is that I leave and will be replaced by an American ambassador to the mission."
Pressure for better protection from Americans mounted after yesterday's attacks. Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, blamed the Americans for not providing security.
In Najaf, another city holy to Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Bashir Najafi said U.S. forces had "left our borders open to infiltrators." He warned in a statement that "the patience of Iraqis is not without limits."
A State Department official, who declined to be identified, expressed the hope that, as a result of yesterday's attacks on civilians, ordinary Iraqis would be more helpful in supplying information about the terrorist networks in their midst.
"It's very clear now that they're attacking the Iraqi people. There's going to be a cost for that," said the official.
Last week, the Defense Intelligence Agency chief, Vice Adm. Lowell E. Jacoby, told Congress that Iraq had become the latest holy war battleground for Muslim extremists and could serve as a training ground for "the next generation of terrorists" much the way Afghanistan did in the 1980s. Most Iraqis want to rely on Americans rather than turning to armed militias for security, according to Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Iraq's national police are too inexperienced to play a major role in security and have been repeatedly under attack by insurgents. Iraqi officials say their country won't be able to provide its own security for some time.
Rather than empower militias that are organized along religious lines, some Iraqi leaders want to integrate individual members into Iraq's army and police force.
But Iraqi and American forces are stretched so thin that Iraqi militias, including the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Shiite Badr Corps, are policing sections of Iraq's porous border, Cagaptay said. And there were some Iraqis yesterday who argued that the militias should be given more responsibility, not less.
"There is no getting around relying on forces on the ground that have had a role in facing the regime," said Abdel Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Shiite party aligned with the Badr Corps.
Byman, of Georgetown, said that "by default, people may turn to them for protection."