WASHINGTON — Midway through a week of mayhem in Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised eyebrows when he said the recent resurgence of violence in Baghdad was "a last gasp" of Islamic extremists.
It was an echo of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who in 2005 said the insurgency was "in the last throes." The following two years were the deadliest period of the war.
Today, as in 2005, other top U.S. military and intelligence officials worry that escalating tensions could threaten the administration's plans to draw down American forces in Iraq.
A truck bomb Friday in the northern city of Mosul killed five U.S. soldiers in the deadliest attack on U.S. forces in 13 months. Since Monday, a series of explosions around the country has killed at least 60 Iraqis and injured 200.
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Speaking Tuesday on "The News Hour" on PBS, Gates said that recent violence in Baghdad was an attempt by "al Qaida, trying sort of as a last gasp, to try and reverse the progress that's been made."
Asked why Gates played down the rise in suicide bombings, a top administration official told McClatchy: "He made a mistake. This is more likely the first gasp of more violence, not the last."
The official, who insisted on anonymity because of the consequences of publicly criticizing a cabinet officer, said that contrary to what Gates said, most U.S. intelligence and military officials are afraid that ethnic and sectarian violence in Iraq could explode again because, the official said: "All sides are just waiting for us to leave to finish settling scores."
Tensions over land and oil recently have been increasing between Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs in northern Iraq, especially in Mosul and the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and between Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad and elsewhere.
"Clearly, changes are happening," said a senior defense official, who also requested anonymity for similar reasons. "We are watching this in terms of where the trends go. I haven't heard anyone else describe it as the last gasp."
In Iraq, many politicians and victims blame the violence in Baghdad and Mosul on sectarian tensions, not on al Qaida in Iraq. In Mosul Friday, witnesses said that tensions between the mostly Shiite police force and the majority Sunni population have increased recently.
"The people who are behind the violence are the people who are betting on the failure of the political process. And some political parties, whether they are aware or not, are being used. I believe regional agendas are at play here," said Seleem Abdullah, of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni bloc.
Whether the violence marks a struggling al Qaida in Iraq or the early signs of what could happen when U.S. forces leave will shape not only the U.S. withdrawal plans but also the Obama administration's push to send more troops to Afghanistan. Under an agreement between the U.S. and Iraq, all U.S. troops must be out of Iraqi cities by the end of June.
"It is inevitable that violence will go up as U.S. troops leave. Is it enough to destabilize the state? We don't know yet," said David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency expert who's advised Army Gen. David Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in Iraq. "The danger is not that Iraq will fall back quickly. It's that will fall back slowly as we were sending more troops to Afghanistan."
Few U.S. officials, the senior administration official added, think the U.S.-backed, Shiite-Muslim-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is capable of containing the violence. More likely, the official said, the Iraqi army and security forces will let the Kurds pummel Sunni Arabs in the north and continue to back fellow Shiites against the Sunnis in Baghdad, Diyala province and elsewhere.
Whatever strength al Qaida in Iraq may have, most officials agree that events in Iraq have drawn the ire of the Sunnis. Most notably, despite promises, the Iraqi government hasn't paid thousands of Sunnis, who drew a salary from the U.S. military to secure their neighborhoods.
While the level of violence has fallen, the underlying issues have yet to be resolved, including those that drive the violence. How will the Kurds and Arabs resolve tensions and land disputes in the north? How will oil revenues be distributed? And how decentralized should the Iraqi government be?
This all comes as Maliki is beginning his re-election bid, running on a rule-of-law platform. If Sunni groups are able to destabilize the nation, that could turn voters toward an alternative candidate in the December elections.
Indeed, members of Maliki's main rival Shiite party Friday blamed the new violence on failing Iraqi security forces, not on Sunni al Qaida in Iraq.
"There are many factors behind the rise in violence incidents, the most important of which is the slackness of the security apparatus and its complacency after the successes it achieved. This slackness has been taken advantage of by those who wish to destabilize the country and benefit from the chaos," said Jalaluddin al Sagheer, a Shiite politician.
So far, the Obama administration has said it will stick to the withdrawal agreement. Privately, some commanders and national security advisers say that the U.S. has done all it can do, and that the Iraqis want the Americans to leave.
If the violence continues, the administration may have to reconsider the pace of the drawdown in Iraq and the plans for Afghanistan. That could alter Obama's 19-month Iraq withdrawal.
"I think the Obama administration is learning that it may need to care more about Iraq," Kilcullen said.
(McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this article from Baghdad.)
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