"Save this country," U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad pleaded with Iraqi leaders on February 24. The bombing of a golden-domed shrine in Samarra sacred to Shiites set off a fury of reprisal attacks that left at least 138 people dead, including several prominent Sunni clerics. A curfew was called to restore order. Shiite leaders urged restraint, as Iraq descended to a level of anarchy and sectarian violence unprecedented in the postwar period. Headlines around the globe warned of civil war. The New York Times claimed "political talks are in ruins." Yet W. Patrick Lang, former head of Middle East Affairs and Counterterrorism at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, disagrees with these pronouncements. He doesn’t believe the attack on the Askariya Shrine will scuttle the political process, nor does he think it will impede the insurgency. In an interview with cfr.org, Lang discusses the looming threat of a general civil war, the role of Shiite militias in stoking violence, and what this all means for U.S. forces in Iraq.
What should the U.S. response be to this latest round of violence in Iraq?
There’s really nothing we can do about it. We lit a fuse on this by the kind of political process we’ve been sponsoring, which is clearly reversing the social order in Iraq to the unhappiness of the Sunnis. The Shiites have been pretty quiet because the electoral process has clearly been going in the direction of handing power over to them. Leaders have urged [Shiites] to be quiet, and not carry out reprisals. But this [latest attack against the shrine] is such an outrage from their point of view. This is like blowing up St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Were you surprised by all the revenge killings by Shiites?
I wasn’t surprised at all, given the level of provocation in the past. The Shiites are quite emotional. Take their Ashura feast. They march in great big parades and beat themselves with chains and make sure they’re all cut up. It’s a way of expressing their religious zeal.
Do you think some of these reprisal attacks were orchestrated from up above, either by Shiite political or religious leaders?
No, this was very grassroots. That mob was not set out there by Shiite clerical leaders. These are the masses who are really upset. That’s what makes this such dangerous situation.
What about the role of [firebrand Shiite cleric] Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army?
They’re part of this but not in fact leading [the attacks]. It’s genuine hostility toward the Sunni community. There’s nothing phony about this.
Will this latest spike in sectarian violence derail the political process?
I don’t think so. The Shiites are still the majority in the country, so the electoral process will go forward. The Shiites will hold almost all the power, and the war and Sunni insurgency will go on.
With all the tension in Iraq, does this then put pressure on Shiite leaders not to install Shiites with militia ties in key ministries like interior or defense?
No, Shiites will see it just the opposite way. They’ll say now we must retain control of those two ministries in particular.
What about talks of imminent civil war in Iraq?
I think that’s gibberish. The country’s been in a state of civil war for a couple years now. It hasn’t looked like that because Shiites have not been responding to the Sunni provocations.
What role should Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani play?
He will not want this to go too far and doesn’t want the country to degenerate into total chaos. Remember, he’s not the pope of Iraq, but he is the most respected [religious leader]. He’ll tell Shiites to restrain themselves, but right now they’re so worked up it might not matter.
The shrine had symbolic value not only to Shiites in Iraq but also to Shiites in Iran. Do you expect Iran to become more involved in light of this attack?
The kind of Shiites you have in Iraq and Iran are "Twelvers." They believe in the authority of twelve imams who descended from the Prophet Mohammed; three of these guys are believed to be buried in this [shrine], so it’s equally as important to the Iranians as it is to the Shiites in Iraq [the twelth so-called hidden imam, Mahdi, is not buried in the shrine, but Shiites believe he will one day resurface]. What are they going to do about it? They’re already participating in Iraq at some level that isn’t obvious on the surface, but this will certainly cause them to be more interested in Iraqi politics.
Wouldn’t you agree this might slow down forming a new government?
We’ve already had elections, and the parliament is in place. Yes, this will probably mean it’ll take longer to form a cabinet, but it doesn’t change nature of the political process.
Does this latest violence affect the timeline to draw down U.S. forces there?
The U.S. government will still try to reduce its troops, but I think it’ll be very difficult because the situation is not going to get better anytime soon. The more people you pull out, the more vulnerable you are on the ground and the less influence you have.
How would you assess the training of Iraqi troops?
The big problem is everybody who has a dog in this fight has worked on infiltrating the police and armed forces. It’s not just the Shiites but also the Sunnis. We’re training forces who are more attached to their own groups than to the country. One of the problems is Iraq is not a nation state. It is a state or government with territory that includes several different nations [of people] who think of themselves as belonging to these ethno-religious groups rather than primarily to the state. Iraq has been held together since 1921 by coercion. We unscrewed the lid on that bottle, and you see the fruits of that process in the streets of Iraq today.
There’s been talk of a tipping -- or saturation -- point in Iraq, in terms of the level of sectarian violence we’re seeing? Do you agree?
This is not a tipping point. This will probably die down and the Shiites will go on with the business of consolidating political power and the Sunnis will continue their insurgency against the government.
But do you think this attack on the shrine could create an even greater rift in the insurgency, that is, between its homegrown and foreign elements?
This is being over-exaggerated. Every time one of these guys shoots another one, the intelligence guys in Baghdad say this is the breakup among the insurgents. Again, I think we’re probably exaggerating [this rift].
Should U.S. officials be trying to bargain with insurgents, given U.S. policy against negotiating with terrorists?
I’m not going to make policy recommendations for the U.S. government. They’re quite good at doing that themselves.