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New Attacks Revive Civil War Fears

Prepared by: Mary Crane, Editorial Coordinator
Updated: March 1, 2006

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Resurgent violence continues to shake Iraq and revive fears that sectarian fighting will doom the country's painstaking political reform process. The latest incidents, following a brief daytime curfew, have left dozens dead in Baghdad (NYT). The recent surge in sectarian fighting, in which hundreds have died in the past week, has forced a debate inside the Pentagon (LAT) about whether the U.S. military can proceed with their plans to pull back troop levels from Iraq later this year—a possibility contingent on political progress and the training of new Iraq security forces. CFR Senior Fellow Max Boot, just back from Iraq, writes in the Los Angeles Times "the picture becomes blurrier, the future murkier when you spend time in Iraq."

A new Zogby poll shows a majority of U.S. troops favor a withdrawal from Iraq within the next year. Meanwhile, former State Department intelligence analyst Wayne White tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman that U.S. forces should withdraw in the next two years. “If things haven’t shaped up at that point, there’s not much we’re going to be able to do," he says. Writing in Foreign Affairs, CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle says turning over internal security responsibilities to an Iraqi army comprised of homogenous religious units will only "throw gasoline on the fire."

Iraqis have suffered through days of reprisal killings and strikes against Sunni mosques after last week’s bombing of the revered Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra. U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, in February 28 testimony before the Senate, warned of the "possibility" of a civil war drawing in Saudi Arabia and Iran into the conflict (BaltSun). President Bush decried the latest round of violence and said the perpetrators wanted to “destroy in order to create chaos” and that Iraqis must choose between “chaos or unity.” The attack on the Golden Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, has “pushed Iraq to the brink of war,” writes the Heritage Foundation's James Phillips, and damaged efforts to build a stable democracy. A new report by the International Crisis Group says this past year was the year “Iraq’s latent sectarianism took wings” and concludes a fully inclusive process is the “sine qua non for stabilization.” Four experts shed light on sectarian violence in TIME, including CFR's Noah Feldman and Vali Nasr. This CFR transcript and this GlobalSecurity.org backgrounder explain the history of Shiite-Sunni relations in Iraq.

The violence has also taken a serious toll on the already difficult political process of forming a national-unity government, outlined in this CFR Background Q&A. W. Patrick Lang, former head of Middle East Affairs and Counterterrorism at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, disagrees, telling cfr.org's Lionel Beehner he doubts the shrine attack will scuttle Iraq's political process. Still, it's becoming clear militia groups such as Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army will continue to threaten Iraqi security, experts say. Sadr’s militia is one of many Shiite militant groups allegedly supported by Iran, which Washington has accused of seeking to destabilize Iraq. Cfr.org examines the links between Iran and Iraq in this CFR Background Q&A. Kenneth Pollack, a Brookings expert on the Persian Gulf region, tells cfr.org that militias, not the insurgency, are the “principal threat for civil war in Iraq.” And keeping militias out of Iraq's security forces will be crucial to ensuring future stability, says Matthew Sherman, former director of policy to Iraq’s Ministry of Interior, in an interview with cfr.org.

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