Mortar attacks on the Green Zone, the American controlled and massively fortified citadel in the heart of Baghdad, were already on the rise when, late last week, a suicide bomber managed to penetrate the Parliament building inside the Zone and kill at least one legislator, while wounding others, in its cafeteria. Some parliamentary representatives were soon declaring the still unfolding American “surge” plan in the capital a dismal failure.

“‘Someone can walk into our parliament building with bombs. What security do we have?’ said Saleh al-Mutlaq, who heads the Sunni National Dialogue Front in the Iraqi parliament.

“‘The plan is 100% a failure. It’s a complete flop,’ said Khalaf al-Ilyan, one of the three leaders of the Iraqi Accordance Front, which holds 44 seats in parliament. ‘The explosion means that instability and lack of security has reached the Green Zone.'”

In the meantime, while the Americans could point to a drop in Iraqi civilian deaths in the capital (along with a rise in American ones), overall Iraqi deaths throughout the country were, not surprisingly, surging as guerrilla operations and sectarian struggles simply shifted to places of less American strength. Baghdad was hardly untouched though: a famous bridge across the Tigris River was severed by a truck bomb last week, while a fierce battle against Sunni insurgents was fought in central Baghdad, using helicopters.

Faced with intensifying fighting, rising casualties, and chaos, the Bush administration, which has resisted setting timetables of any sort in Iraq, finally set one. In a Pentagon news briefing on Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced a set of “clear guidelines that our commanders, troops and their families could understand and use in determining how future rotations in support of the global war on terror would affect them.” Thanks to the thoughtful timetable-setting of the Bush administration, Army families, who might previously have hoped that their loved ones would come home at the end of a 12-month tour of duty in Iraq, are now assured that they will definitively have to wait another three months. This is certainly a sign of desperation for the faltering all-volunteer military in a situation fewer and fewer Americans would care to volunteer to be part of.

Although administration-backing politicians like Senator John McCain and pundits like David Brooks of the New York Times are urging that the surge plan be given “a shot to play out” before being consigned to the dust heap of history, the signs for the future in Iraq are grim indeed. Even in the more peaceful Kurdish north, there are signs of trouble. General Yasar Buyukanit, head of Turkey’s military General Staff, raised the incendiary possibility of Turkish cross-border military operations into Iraqi Kurdistan to “crush” Kurdish rebels, causing a predictable storm of response in Iraq. Meanwhile, a dangerous game of chicken is being played out at the edge of some cliff by the Bush administration and its Iranian counterparts — with kidnapped Iranian diplomats-cum-Revolutionary-Guards held somewhere in America’s Iraqi prison mini-gulag, those British sailors taken hostage by Iranian Revolutionary Guards (and then freed), an American ex-FBI agent mysteriously missing in Iran, and the report from Robert Fisk of the British Independent that “the US military intends to place as many as five mechanized brigades — comprising about 40,000 men — south and east of Baghdad, at least three of them positioned between the capital and the Iranian border. This would present Iran with a powerful — and potentially aggressive — American military force close to its border in the event of a US or Israeli military strike against its nuclear facilities later this year.”

And let’s remember that all this has happened without the majority Shiite population having truly entered the Iraq War, which remains (however precariously) a struggle largely against a Sunni minority insurgency. This may slowly be changing as, in another desperately dangerous game of chicken, the American military tries to peel away and take out parts of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army — elements of which were engaged in street battles last week in Diwaniyah to the south of Baghdad, while Sadr’s followers peacefully protested for the end of the American occupation of the country in a vast, over 8-mile long march in Najaf.

After all these years, the Bush administration still seems not to grasp the full dangers it faces, including, as Juan Cole long ago pointed out, what might be called the Khomeini solution in which the majority Shiite population would take to the streets, a development against which the Americans could prove helpless. (“An urban insurgency/revolution,” Cole wrote back in 2004, “can in fact win, and win quite decisively, as the urban crowds won out over the Shah [of Iran]. The Shah tried everything to put down the urban crowds. He had them spied on. He had them shot at. Nothing worked. The urban crowds just got bigger and bigger.”) And don’t forget those endless supply lines from Kuwait, so crucial for the American war-fighting and base system — and so vulnerable.

To complicate matters, Sadr pulled his six ministers from the already shaky Maliki government Monday to protest the arrest of Mahdi Army commanders and the Prime Minister’s unwillingness to sponsor a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces from the country. (This is a position backed, in the latest opinion poll, by 80% of Shiites and 97% of Sunnis.) Recently, Middle Eastern expert Dilip Hiro reminded us not to overlook another Iraqi figure, a Shiite nationalist who, these days, gets very little print at all — Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani against whose wishes, in crucial moments in the past, the Americans have proven remarkably helpless. With the American surge already faltering, the situation in Iraq looks ever more explosive.