Charles de Gaulle, who understood that the national interest of his country meant letting go of French colonial ambitions in Algeria, recognised that supremacy over someone else did not give one power to control his own destiny. This is the ultimate challenge facing both Iraqi leaders and foreign architects who fathom Mesopotamia's fate for the next few decades.

Though Iraqis and Americans believe that they restored stability to that hapless country, the latest suicide bombings in the heart of Baghdad, which killed over 155 and wounded more than 700, illustrated the illusions of recovery. To be sure, the total number of such attacks diminished significantly since the peak year of 2007, and people are going about their business more or less freely, but all is not well. Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki and his government boast that they are steadily improving security, and while few can argue that Iraq in general and Baghdad in particular are safer today than they were three years ago, few should harbour any fantasies that this is still one of the most dangerous places around the world.

Notwithstanding Al Maliki's putative law-and-order record, bombers seem to have no difficulties roaming through Baghdad, perhaps with assistance from army and police collaborators. While one understands that defence units cannot possibly search every vehicle that crosses their checkpoints, there is no such thing as normality in Iraq. Of course, this is a broad generalisation, and one cannot dismiss the yeoman's work many officers perform. Still, bombings are a reflection of more serious concerns that should preoccupy Baghdad, especially as the government prepares for critical elections next January.

According to the International Organisation on Migration, there are still 1.6 million internally displaced Iraqis who cannot "return home". Many are trying to survive "without work, their own home, schooling for children, access to water, electricity and health care". These refugees are Iraqi citizens who are not represented in government but whose fates will probably determine whether the pool from which opposition forces can recruit bombers will shrink. As it is widely recognised, remnants of the Baath party or any number of the security services created by the old regime are still active, even if Baghdad and its allies continue to hearken to Al Qaida.

Moreover, because Iraqis do not agree among themselves on how to make the transition from dictatorship to democratisation — notwithstanding the mistaken assumption that "talking about who will run the government after the elections" only occurs in this Arab country — there is a tendency to reach for the lowest common denominator, which is political instability in the name of power sharing. In fact, it remains to be determined whether a democratising Iraq will satisfy powerful clerics as well as Iran, Syria, and other neighbouring countries.

There are truly immense challenges that confront Iraq after three long and bloody decades that transformed it into a totally dysfunctional state. Nevertheless, few should underestimate the Iraqi population's desire for freedom, and while law-and-order messages will always resonate favourably with voters, conservative Iraq cannot overlook what its most powerful community — the clerical classes — demand. Today, the religious establishment enjoys unparalleled authority, something that politicians will ignore at their peril, with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani the most legitimate leader in the country. Inasmuch as every single opinion poll indicates that over seventy percent of Iraqis want a united, secular, democratic Iraq, elected officials will still not be able to accomplish much if they forego the country's legitimising clerical establishment.

Towards that end, Al Maliki is now working out a new arrangement with President Jalal Talabani and parliament speaker Eyad Al Samarrai, regarding the stalled election law. There is a growing concern that polls slated for January 16, 2010 may be delayed, because politicians cannot agree whether to require parties to publish full lists of their candidates — in what would essentially be an open system that is favoured by the clergy — or safeguard the current closed list system whereby voters see only party names. In the event, the hurdle to the election law's passage concerns the contention that Iraqis do not agree among themselves on how to make the transition from dictatorship to democratisation. If the presence of US military decision-makers was the chief excuse until now, the present parliamentary impasse is domestic in nature, even if foreign forces exercise influence.

Optimistic American officers eager to bug out marvel at the sight of a crane to emphasise that new construction means economic prosperity and political stability. They rely on increased traffic jams, revitalised schools, improved sports stadium attendance, as well as augmented bus and train travel, as solid indicators of normality. Naturally, they caution that political emendations are neither easy, nor cost-free, though periodic carnages recalibrate every conceivable notion of stability.

Still, we now live in neo-colonial times and, frankly, there is no Charles de Gaulle in Iraq. Even after the full withdrawal of all foreign forces, indigenous leaders must painstakingly learn that regional and international pressures will lurk beneath the surface. Consequently, to control Iraq's own destiny, secular and clerical leaders alike ought to draw relevant lessons from earlier cases, which confirm that pre-eminence over others does not ensure legitimacy.

Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.