Iraq on brink of civil war

Iraq is on the verge of breaking up along religious, ethnic and tribal lines—a process bloodily amplified by the Shia versus Sunni violence in the wake the recent bomb attack on the gold-domed shrine in Samarra, the International Crisis Group (ICG) says in a report.

The conflict resolution organisation warns that, left unchecked, the widening fissures in Iraqi society that have been exposed since the removal of the Ba’athist regime in 2003 could bring further “instability and violence to many areas, especially those with mixed populations’‘.

The most pressing problem is the Sunni-Shia schism, which “threatens to tear the country apart’‘, says the report, entitled The Next Iraqi War?. It urges Iraqi leaders and the international community to take immediate action to prevent the conflict from escalating into a civil war that could cause Iraq’s disintegration and spread chaos through the region.

But it also calls for the international community, including Iraq’s neighbours, to start preparing for the “regrettable’’ scenario in which the country falls apart.

“Until now, such an effort has been a taboo, but failure to anticipate such a possibility may lead to further disasters in the future,’’ the ICG warns.

A week of violence in the wake of the Samarra bombing has left more than 400 dead and many mosques smashed, despite daytime curfews on Baghdad and surrounding provinces.

There were further ominous signs of the “cleansing’’ of once-mixed neighbourhoods in and around Baghdad. Scores of Shia families were reported to have fled homes in the restive western Sunni suburb of Abu Ghraib.
Shia community leaders said they were being housed temporarily in schools and other buildings in Shia areas.

In the latest round of attacks this week, a bomb planted near a police checkpoint and a market in the New Baghdad area killed at least 23 people and wounded 58, most of them civilians, police said. Another car bomb killed at least two people near a central bus station. There were no casualties in a blast near a Sunni mosque.

Anger has been building for months in the Shia and Sunni communities. Shi’ites are furious at the government’s inability to defend them from Sunni insurgents and religious militants. Among Sunnis, there is anger over kidnappings and assassinations blamed on the Shi’ite-dominated security forces.

Iraq’s political leadership staged a show of unity by appearing on TV last weekend. Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al Jaafari said that all or most of the leaders “expressed the importance of accelerating the political process without any delay’‘. Sunni leaders who pulled out of talks to form a national unity government hinted they may soon rejoin the process.

United States President George W Bush this week decried the surge in violence and declared that for Iraqis “the choice is chaos or unity”.

Bush noted that he had spoken to seven Iraqi political leaders last weekend in an effort to defuse the violence. “They understood the seriousness of the moment. They have made their choice, which is to work toward a unity government,” he said.

Bush sidestepped a question about whether the violence would affect his administration’s hopes to begin withdrawing US troops. In its report, the ICG said Washington “should explicitly state its intention to withdraw all its troops from Iraq.

“Any drawdown should be gradual and take into account progress in standing up self-sustaining, non-sectarian Iraqi security forces as well as in promoting an inclusive political process,” the report said.

Joost Hiltermann, the director of the ICG’s Middle East project, denied the prognosis was overly gloomy. “It is true I am pessimistic. But there are still some restraints in place and steps that could work and we could yet see Iraq through the worst of the crisis.”

The ICG report said steps included the Shi’ite-Kurdish alliance, which won the December elections, giving Sunni Muslims more than a token government role and disbanding militias.

Hiltermann said it was encouraging that Shia and Sunni religious leaders had called for unity and calm. “Also, ordinary Iraqis seem to have no desire for either a civil war or the break up of their country,” he said.—Â

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