Baghdad blasts are latest in a country where stability remains an illusion
Attacks such as the wave of bombings that have killed at least 72 people in Baghdad have been both dreaded and predicted in , where appalling savagery continues to be unleashed with numbing frequency.
Amid all the talk of security improvements since 2007, officials have had to deal with at least three mass-casualty al-Qaida-inspired "spectaculars" each year.
Thursday morning's carnage throughout the capital was undoubtedly the work of Sunni extremists. The Shia militias remain stood down and no other group in Iraq retains the will – or capacity – to wreak such havoc.
The attacks were the worst since a string of bombings in August that killed 74 people. But they were merely the latest in a country where stability and plurality remain a bitter illusion.
The 16 bombs, 72 deaths and 217 wounded will undoubtedly be viewed through the prism of the that within a week of the US withdrawal has put an end to any hope of the country moving forward under a nationalist banner.
But it is highly unlikely that the plight of Tariq al-Hashimi, , has any direct bearing on what happened on Thursday.
This sort of co-ordinated rampage takes a lot of planning, most of it done the old-fashioned way, with messengers passing notes to cells that often stay dormant for months as they wait for instructions. Building the nine car bombs and moving them into position is also no easy task. The attacks targeted all points of the city, but were concentrated in mainly Shia neighbourhoods, or on the (predominantly Shia) security forces in Sunni areas.
Over the past month, as the US military prepared to leave, senior officers warned that Sunni insurgents would mount attacks to create the impression that it was chased out under fire. But there is a second element to what happened on Thursday, which very much plays to fears that the country is unravelling along sectarian lines.
The , convinced that he is pursuing a sectarian agenda that is designed to entrench the marginalisation Sunnis have felt throughout the nine years since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
While mainstream Sunnis are certainly no friends of al-Qaida, or the militant groups who fight in its name, they may be somewhat sympathetic to a pointed message to Maliki.
But it is doubtful that Maliki will pay heed to such a message. In the current climate, he will more likely use the attacks as an excuse to go even harder on Sunni opponents and to convince the country's Shias that he is justified in doing so.
It is hard to overstate just how fraught Iraq's future looks – and the risk that this entails for a highly combustible region. Sectarian positions are hardening inside and outside its borders. And distrust is as low as it has been for years. Nobody expected Iraq to be a showpiece of Jeffersonian democracy. But neither did anyone expect it to deteriorate quite so soon after the Americans left. A lot of wisdom – and help – will be needed to pull things back from here.