WITH only five days before American troops are due to withdraw from the streets of Baghdad and other Iraq cities, there are worrying signs that one of the objectives of the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 -- to establish what President Bush described as a “beacon of democracy in the Middle East” - is at risk. The increasing number of bombings in Baghdad and the lack of any real sectarian collaboration in the Iraq parliament or in community life generally, point to a risk of a breakdown of the fragile law and order made possible mainly by the presence of US forces.

President Obama said throughout his election campaign that America had “taken its eye off” the more important issue of Afghanistan by devoting so much effort to Iraq - and he has continued to take that line from the White House. However, it is reasonable to ask what he would do if Iraq reverts to open violence among its people when US forces disappear into their barracks or to Afghanistan, as they are scheduled to do next year. The argument that highly visible troops are themselves a convenient target for militants and that their departure will remove this cause of friction is attractive but has yet to be proved. If the situation were to deteriorate seriously, would America feel able to intervene? Might it not make more sense to postpone the impending withdrawal from the streets, however much the Iraq government would dislike this?