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Violence Renews Civil War Fears

Prepared by: cfr.org editorial staff
March 13, 2006

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A new series of attacks on predominantly Shiite areas of Baghdad appear to have unleashed a wave of sectarian fighting (NYT) similar to the violence that followed the bombing of the revered Shiite Golden Mosque last month in Samarra. Religious leaders have called for calm (LAT), including firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. His top aide, Riyadh al-Nouri, says the attacks are meant to provoke Shiites, vowing, "We will never be dragged into a civil war" (ChiTrib).

As the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq approaches, there is deepening concern about sectarianism, including its impact on Iraq’s security forces. President Bush, in the first of a series of speeches aimed at defending the war, acknowledged "we will see more images of chaos and carnage in the days and months to come." This comes amid continuing reports of abuses and escalating violence between Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni populations. The issue is bedeviling the efforts of officials like U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad (NYT), who has criticized Shiite leaders for sectarian killings carried out at the Iraqi Interior Ministry. The U.S. State Department’s newly released human rights report on Iraq says that “since criminals, insurgents, and paramilitaries often wore police uniforms, data on actual police abuses was uncertain.” Brookings’ Kenneth Pollack says militias are even more destabilizing than the insurgency, while Matthew Sherman, a former Interior Ministry adviser, tells cfr.org the number of commandos with sectarian militia ties has jumped from roughly 6,000 to around 10,000 over the past year. Meanwhile, CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Biddle suggests decellerating the training of Iraqi troops and police units until a constitutional deal agreeable to all of Iraq’s ethnic groups is struck.

Against this backdrop of growing violence, Iraq’s political leaders are still trying to put together a national-unity government, explained in this CFR Background Q&A. But Sunnis have voiced strong opposition to the choice of Ibrahim al-Jaafari for prime minister because of his alleged ties to Shiite militias. Experts say finding some form of détente between the Shiite and Sunni communities will be critical to avoiding all-out civil war and achieving political progress in Iraq. To be sure, it is not just Shiites and Sunnis vying for power in Iraq’s future government; Kurds and Christians will also play important roles, as these two CFR Background Q&As explain.

In connection with the three-year anniversary of the Iraq war, cfr.org asked a number of experts, journalists, and military specialists: Is the United States winning or losing the war in Iraq? The consensus is the U.S. military is struggling, but the war is not lost. And Foreign Affairs provides a web exclusive with excerpts from the declassified report by U.S. Joint Forces Command of the inner workings and behavior of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

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