To the extent the Bush administration has a coherent Middle East policy, it took some serious hits this past week. No, not the democracy-promotion strategy, although that didn’t fare very well either given what even the State Department conceded was the obvious rigging of the constitutional-reform referendum that Amnesty International called the “greatest erosion of human rights” in Egypt in the past 25 years.

No, that strategy, to the degree it was ever seriously pursued, was replaced about six months or so ago by a new approach designed to rally the region’s Sunni “moderate” authoritarian governments — namely, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates — and forge them into a US-led alliance, possibly including Israel, against the region’s “radicals” — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.

That new strategy was supplemented by an effort, launched in February, to halt Iraq’s rapid descent into full-scale sectarian civil war by sending some 35,000 additional troops. When completed by this summer, the so-called “surge” is supposed to bring total US forces to as many as 175,000 — the same number that invaded Iraq four years ago.

But events of this past week raised serious questions about the prospects for success on both fronts. A resurgence of horrific sectarian violence cast new doubts on the on-the-ground viability of Bush’s “surge”. At the same time, the Senate’s approval of a must-pass defence appropriations bill requiring the president to withdraw US combat troops from Iraq by late summer and complete their withdrawal within the next year raised new questions on the strategy’s political viability. Administratsion officials have been tentatively claiming the surge’s success, and, indeed, polling suggested that the general public had become somewhat more optimistic about Iraq. But a wave of car bombings, apparently by Sunni militants, in areas in and around the capital and further north in Tal Afar not only boosted death tolls to pre-surge levels, but also threatened to bring Shi’a militias back into the streets, according to the Washington Times.

That the worst violence took place in Tal Afar, where police and Shi’a gunmen Wednesday executed dozens of Sunnis in retaliation for the bombings, was particularly devastating because a counter-insurgency campaign carried out there early last year has been repeatedly cited as the model on which the surge strategy is based.

As new questions emerged about the effectiveness or futility of the surge, however, Washington’s larger regional strategy also appeared to suffer potentially significant setbacks on the diplomatic front. At the Arab League summit in Riyadh, Saudi King Abdullah, on whom the administration has come increasingly to rely for rallying the region’s “moderates” against the Iran-led “Quartet of Evil”, shocked US officials when, in his opening remark, he called the US military presence in Iraq an “illegitimate occupation”.

Abdullah is also reportedly frustrated with Bush’s failure to put pressure on Israel to respond positively both to the new Palestinian unity government, which the king himself successfully midwifed, and to the five-year-old Arab League proposal to recognise the Jewish state if it returns to its 1967 borders and acknowledges the right of return for Palestinian refugees. — IPS