WASHINGTON – Two days after the bombing of one of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines in Iraq, analysts and officials here are holding their breath, desperately hoping that a rapid descent into a sectarian civil war in Iraq can still be avoided, if not reversed.
While a Friday curfew and appeals for restraint by religious leaders across Iraq appeared to have prevented any major outbreak of violence Friday, like that which reportedly took more than 130 lives and damaged or destroyed nearly 200 Sunni mosques on Wednesday and Thursday, experts here warned that it was far too early to exhale.
"It will take several days to see," according to ret. Ambassador David Newton, who served as Washington’s ambassador to Baghdad in the late 1980s. "If you can get through the next few days without any major events, there’s a chance you can get the political process restarted. But that we’re closer to the edge of the cliff in Iraq, there’s no doubt."
Even President George W. Bush noted Friday that neither Iraq nor the U.S. was out of the woods. "The days ahead in Iraq are going to be difficult and exhausting," he told an American Legion convention. "This is a moment of choosing for the Iraq people."
By all accounts, Wednesday’s bombing of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra and the retaliatory attacks that followed it marked an extremely serious setback to efforts by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to negotiate an agreement among the major parties for the creation of a new government that will satisfy the minimum demands particularly for security of the Sunni population.
"I think this is probably the most dangerous event that has occurred since the fall of Saddam Hussein," Marc Reuel Gerecht, a Gulf specialist at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, told CNN. "It risks our entire enterprise in Iraq."
Key Sunni leaders, including some believed to have close ties to the insurgency, walked out of the negotiations Thursday, accusing their Shi’ite counterparts and the government of Prime Minister Ibraham al-Jaafari of inciting the reprisals, which reportedly included the killing of 10 Sunni clerics and the abduction of 15 others.
Jaafari and other Shi’ite leaders strongly denied the charges, although U.S. officials expressed concern over the failure of police and other security forces to even try to restrain Shi’ite militias, particularly Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, from attacking Sunni mosques after Wednesday’s bombing. In some cases, units from the security forces, many of which are believed to be infiltrated by Shi’ite militia members, were seen joining in the attacks.
Officials and analysts here also expressed great concern over Wednesday’s suggestion by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most influential cleric, that Shi’ites may have to depend on their own forces to defend against insurgent attacks.
"If the [government’s] security apparatuses are unable to safeguard against this crisis," he warned, "the believers are able to do so, by the aid of God."
That even Sistani, whose repeated calls for restraint in the face of previous insurgent attacks on Shi’ite targets have been seen as indispensable to preventing civil war, was losing patience and considering giving formal dispensation to sectarian militias at precisely the moment when Washington is trying to purge the national security forces and the Interior and Defense ministries of sectarian influences added to the sense that Iraq was teetering on the edge of the abyss.
"We may be on the verge of taking communal violence to the next level," warned Juan Cole, president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), who called Wednesday "an apocalyptic day in Iraq."
"Iraqi political actors and the international community must act urgently to prevent a low-intensity conflict from escalating into an all-out civil war that could lead to Iraq’s disintegration and destabilization," warned Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group (ICG). He noted that the events of the last few days were "only the latest and bloodiest indication" that Iraq finds itself "on the threshold of wholesale disaster."
Sistani’s appeals for Shi’ite restraint were "increasingly falling on deaf ears," he told IPS, while the secular center, which claimed less than 15 percent of the vote in December, "has largely vanished, and U.S. influence, despite Khalilzad’s activist diplomacy, is also on the wane."
At the very least, according to Louay Bahry, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute (MEI) here and former political science professor at the University of Baghdad, both Sunni and Shi’ite political leaders are almost certain to harden their positions in negotiations with Khalilzad over the formation of a new government.
"It will strain the negotiations for sure," he told IPS. "This will set back the agenda for forming a new government for weeks maybe. I don’t know when the Sunni leadership will return."
Khalilzad has been pressing the main Shi’ite coalition, which is currently six votes short of an absolute majority in the new parliament, to accommodate several key Sunni demands in order to create a government of national unity.
Of these, the most important include banning the appointment of politicians tied to Shi’ite militias to top posts in the Interior and Defense ministries and amending the constitution, which was drafted virtually without any Sunni participation, to take far greater account of their core concerns.
Over the past two weeks, Khalilzad had become increasingly outspoken on these issues, particularly on the importance of purging the police, which has been accused of shielding "death squads" tied to Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI) and the Mahdi Army, of sectarian influences.
Indeed, on the eve of the bombing of the Golden Mosque, Khalilzad suggested publicly that Washington was prepared withdraw its "billions of dollars" in support to Iraq’s security forces, declaring, "We are not going to invest the resources of the American people to build forces run by people who are sectarian."
That warning, in particular, provoked bitter reactions among Shi’ite leaders after the bombing. SCIRI’s powerful leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who has long complained about U.S. efforts to curb the Badr Brigade, charged that Khalilzad had "contributed to greater pressure [on the Shi’ites] and gave a green light to terrorist groups, and he therefore bears a part of the responsibility."
"It’s very clear that the Shi’ites are interpreting this chain of events as evidence that the Americans are weak and can’t protect Shi’ite interests," Cole told IPS. "And now Americans are having to come back to the Shi’ites and ask them to be magnanimous and give away a lot of what they’ve won in elections."
"It was always going to be a very hard sell, but now it’s an impossible argument; Shi’ites aren’t going to give away any power at all at this point," he said, adding that, given the mathematics of putting together a government, "it’s possible that there could be a hung parliament, the government would collapse, and you’d have to go to new elections. And that would be a disaster in the present circumstances."
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