The death toll in a string of attacks in Baghdad, mostly against government and Shiite targets, is up to 68. The attacks follow days of political threats against Sunni politicians by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Today’s death toll in Iraq, by the grim standards of the country’s almost nine-year-old war is sadly nothing special. The current count, according to the BBC, is 68 dead in at least 16 bomb blasts across the Iraqi capital today. With the toll almost certain to rise – dozens of seriously injured are in city hospitals – Dec. 22 may well end up one of the worst days of 2011 in Iraq.

But at the height of Iraq’s civil war and insurgency, hundreds were killed in single days. While the US troop surge of 2007 helped tamp down Iraq’s violence – and, the US hoped, created “space” for sectarian reconciliation – in the years since, Iraqi politics have remained largely driven by sect and ethnicity, their politicians pursuing a zero-sum game for absolute power.

Unsurprisingly, rates of political violence have been on the rise this year. More than 30 attacks across Iraq on Aug. 15 killed more than 70 people – so while today was horrific, it was far from a isolated instance. In July, then US Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction wrote that “Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work. It is less safe, in my judgment, than 12 months ago.” He asserted that assassination of judges and security agents remained commonplace and the “situation continues to deteriorate.”

There have been no signs of improvement since, and the fears that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies would continue to seek to consolidate security and political power in their own hands have quickly borne out, just days after the last US combat troops departed the country.

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