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Fears of Civil War Follow Golden Mosque Attack

Prepared by: Mary Crane, Editorial Coordinator
February 23, 2006

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In the wake of the attack on the revered Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra, violent reprisals have killed dozens of people (AP), including some Sunni Arab clerics. The shrine honors three descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, among them Mohammed al-Mahdi, whose second coming Shiites believe is near. Prominent Shiites, including the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—who blamed the United States and Israel for the mosque attack (al-Jazeera)—regard the Golden Mosque as one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.

The recent wave of violence in Iraq has raised fears that the increasingly sectarian conflict is escalating toward outright civil war (CSMonitor). Violence continues and dozens of Sunni mosques have been attacked despite calls for calm (Guardian). Sadr has ordered his militia, the Mahdi Army, to defend Shiite holy sites throughout Iraq. Mahdi Army members were reportedly driving around Baghdad in jeeps waving weapons (ChiTrib).  The Mahdi Army is one of many Shiite militant groups allegedly supported by Iran, which the United States has accused of seeking to destabilize Iraq. Cfr.org’s Lionel Beehner examines the links between Iran and Iraq in this new CFR Background Q&A. Another Q&A identifies the major Shiite militias in Iraq. Kenneth Pollack, an expert on the Persian Gulf region, tells cfr.org that militias, not the insurgency, are the “principal threat for civil war in Iraq.”

The violence has taken a serious toll on the already difficult political process of forming a national-unity government, outlined in this CFR Background Q&A. Sunni politicians boycotted a meeting called by President Jalal Talabani to calm sectarian tensions and demanded apologies for the attacks against Sunni mosques and leaders (NYT) from the Shiites and Kurds.

A new report by the International Crisis Group, which culls large amounts of communications between insurgent constituents, finds that the insurgency's foreign jihadis and Sunni nationalists are less divided than U.S. officials suggest. This CFR Background Q&A looks at the status of the insurgency, while another examines the reported rift among the insurgency's ranks.

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