On Monday, the US administration and its appointed Iraqi Governing Council signed an interim constitution for Iraq. The previous week, 112 Shiites in Karbala and 70 more in Baghdad were slaughtered in multiple suicide bombings on a Shiite holy day. This latest murderous instalment in Sunni Ba'athist and Sunni Islamist ambitions begs the question: will the murderers succeed?
If the aim is to provoke Iraqi chaos and civil war, the answer is uncertain but likely to be no. If the aim is to sow American fear and irresolution as a prelude to a hasty, ill-conceived American exit, the jury is still out. The reasons are these:
No political arrangements that lack broad majority Shiite support are likely to succeed. If Shiites can be incited to counter-massacre and their own extremists come to predominate, Iraq will become unmanageable and democracy an impossibility.
The attacks in Karbala and Baghdad fit the declared aim of Iraq's most wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi , to engineer maximum bloodshed and chaos starting four months ahead of the planned June handover of power to the IGC.
But the US is unlikely to stand by idly and withdraw. For one thing, the likely destabilisation this would induce forbids it. For another, the frequently neglected gains of Saddam Hussein's removal are too important to forfeit. Despite the recent carnage, here is a country enjoying recovery of liberties and prosperity unimaginable under Hussein.
Sunni leaders have come out opposing the terrorism. They have been joined by Kurds, who have no wish to oblige Islamists by resorting to civil war and losing their hard-won prosperity in the north.
Iraq's oil industry has recovered; crude oil production is up to 2.3 million to 2.5 million barrels a day, approaching pre-war levels of 2.8 million barrels. Iraq's skeletal budget will thus enjoy an infusion of billion ($19 billion) badly needed dollars.
Attacks on oil pipelines have greatly diminished in recent months, tribute to the efficiency of the new Iraqi police force guarding them. Electricity has been largely restored, schools are functioning and terrorists are encountering increasing difficulty attacking foreign troops. These are quiet achievements.
Sunni assaults on Shiites have been a fixture of the Iraqi state since its founding. For Ba'athists and Islamists alike it has added attractiveness in the context of a recuperating Iraq in which Shiites will predominate. The situation calls for careful handling.
But will the Americans stay the course?
Here, the outlook is cloudier. An early devolution of power to the IGC, ahead of elections, with US and British forces removed to the remote hinterland is wise under the circumstances, but feeds doubt regarding American resolve. Moreover, the interim constitution produced last Monday is a defective document that fails the tests of democracy and Shiite demands.
The Shiites, led by Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, demand both the assent of an elected assembly (in which Shiites will predominate) and the eventual incorporation of the Sharia as "the source" and possibly the only ultimate source of law. Thus are representative democracy and democratic freedoms on a collision course.
However different to neighbouring Iran such an Iraq might prove to be, does this mean in time another Shiite theocracy?
Discussion on Iraq remains overshadowed by an older question: should we have gone to war to depose Hussein? Those who think so discourse on a bright or less bleak Iraqi future; those who don't hint at new evils unleashed. Both have merit.
For the hand-wringers were indeed wrong. The war did not bring hundreds of thousands of dead, millions of refugees or billions of dollars of destruction. Instead, it removed Hussein's regime in weeks and brought Iraqis on to the streets with joy. Conversely, Britain's Tony Blair foreshadowing "beacons of democracy" was a classic case of over-sell.
Something less than complete success in Iraq is to be expected. Democracy is an exotic plant in the Middle East and might not take hold. If it does not, more modest aims are in order. This means assisting to establish a federal system that is less barbarous, tyrannical and unfettered in its brutality than was Hussein's. Such an outcome is far from ideal but would nonetheless represent a victory for Americans and Iraqis alike.
Daniel Mandel is associate director of the Middle East Forum in Philadelphia and a fellow in history at Melbourne University.