The US military angrily lashed out yesterday with an air strike on an alleged "safehouse" of insurgents in Fallujah believed to be behind co-ordinated attacks across Iraq.
As the insurgents attacked in cities across central Iraq this week, killing more than 100 people, Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister, vowed that "we are going to defeat them. We are going to crush them."
It will not be easy to do. By making co-ordinated assaults on police stations and government buildings, the guerrillas have shown that they are far better organised and more numerous than they were six months ago.
The attacks also had the obvious intention of spoiling the so-called handover of power by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iraqi interim government led by Mr Allawi on 30 June.
In fact the transfer of power will be limited. Mr Allawi has grandiose plans for a beefed-up Iraqi security force, but at the moment he has little armed strength. He must depend on the 138,000 US troops in the country for the foreseeable future. The elaborate security measures protecting Mr Allawi as he speaks defiantly to his enemies make clear his reliance on the US. Anybody attending his press conferences must enter the Green Zone, the American civil headquarters in Iraq, and pass through four checkpoints manned by US soldiers. No Iraqi officials are visible.
But there is no doubt about the American desire to give an Iraqi face to the occupation and to see Iraqi security forces do much of the fighting.
The US military and civil leaders were profoundly shaken when half of the Iraqi army, paramilitary units and police deserted or went home during the uprisings in April.
Mr Allawi will now play a vital role in US plans. He is a surprising choice. "We really chose him because he had the least enemies," said a member of the notoriously divided Iraqi Governing Council, which selected him last month. He was a notably unsuccessful opposition leader against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, played little role in the war last year, and his movement, the Iraqi National Accord, had made little impact since entering Baghdad.
But Mr Allawi, 59, has certain advantages. He was born into a well-known Shia family in a country where the Shias make up 60 per cent of the population. He was also a member of the Baath party in Iraq and in the UK until he broke with Saddam in the 1970s. This is reassuring for former members of the Baath, numbering some 750,000 members last year, which Paul Bremer, the US viceroy last year, disastrously persecuted. Mr Allawi has publicly said that disbanding the Iraqi army was a mistake.
Again his appointment will be welcomed by hundreds of thousands of former Iraqi soldiers and security men.
But other aspects of Mr Allawi’s past are less than reassuring for Iraqis, who expect him to end the occupation and bring peace (and there is an overwhelming desire for peace among Iraqis). Trained as a neurologist in Baghdad, he was awarded a scholarship to Britain, where he worked for Iraqi intelligence as head of the Iraqi Student Union of Europe. He made money in business. Soon he was dealing with British as well as Iraqi intelligence officers.
It is in this shadowy world that Mr Allawi is happiest. He defended himself this month against charges that he was being financed by the CIA by saying that over the years he had taken money from 15 different intelligence organisations but had always been true to his aim of getting rid of Saddam Hussein. In 1978, Saddam, angered by Mr Allawi’s change in loyalties, sent assassins to his home in London. They burst into his bedroom armed with knives and axes but he survived, though seriously wounded.
Mr Allawi founded the Iraqi National Accord (al-Wifaq), which sought to attract defecting Baathists and army officers. In 1996 it opened an office in Jordan and tried to launch a coup against Saddam in Baghdad. It failed bloodily. Iraqi security men had penetrated its organisation. But the CIA appeared never to lose faith in him as their chosen agent.
Curiously Mr Allawi’s subterranean existence since the fall of Saddam has stood him in good stead. Much of the time he was out of the country. His rival Ahmed Chalabi, close to the Pentagon and the neo-conservatives but hated by the CIA and the US State Department, has fallen from grace as a result of bureaucratic wars in Washington.
The problem for Mr Allawi is that he must now try to ride two very different horses at the same time. Iraqis want him to restore order and get rid of the US occupation. But he has no real base and must therefore do what the US wants at the end of the day. He is thus in danger of having responsibility but little power and being seen by Iraqis as an American stooge.