Iraq: Sunnis vs. Shiites and Kurds Looks Like Civil War

Saturday, 04 December 2004 22:53 by: Anonymous

Also see below:     
U.N. Envoy Says Iraq Is a 'Mess'    [

    Sunnis vs. Shiites and Kurds:
    Mayhem in Iraq Is Starting to Look Like a Civil War

    By Edward Wong
    The New York Times

    Sunday 05 December 2004

    Baghdad - Common wisdom holds that if American troops withdraw anytime soon, Iraq will descend into civil war, as Lebanon did in the late 1970's. But that ignores a question posed by events of recent weeks:

    Has a civil war already begun?

    Iraq is no Lebanon yet. But evidence is building that it is at least in the early stages of ethnic and sectarian warfare.

    Armed Iraqi groups have mounted ever more deadly and spectacular assaults on fellow Iraqis, in bids to assert political and territorial dominance. This fighting is generally defined by ethnic and religious divisions: rebellious Sunni Arabs clashing with Shiite Arabs and Kurds. On Friday, in Baghdad, mortar attacks on a police station and the suicide car bombing of a Shiite mosque left at least 27 dead.

    Some academic and military analysts say the battle lines have been hardened by the American policy of limiting the power of the minority Sunni Arabs, who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein's rule and make up most of the rebellion. The Americans have handed the bulk of authority to the Shiites, who represent a majority of Iraqis, and a lesser share to the Kurds, who are about a fifth of the population. This has increased the influence of the two major groups that were brutally suppressed by Mr. Hussein, and raised Sunni fears about sharing power with them as a minority.

    Some of the country's most prominent Sunni Arab leaders are expressing indifference or opposition to taking part in the elections for a constitution-writing legislature, while the Shiites and Kurds are eager to participate. Iraqi electoral officials and President Bush insist the vote will take place as scheduled, despite calls from Sunni leaders for a significant delay. Thus, the specter of civil conflict could grow as the Jan. 30 vote approaches.

    The Americans have added to the alienation of the Sunnis by relying heavily on Shiite and Kurdish military recruits to put down the Sunni insurgency in some of the most volatile areas. The guerrillas, in turn, reinforce sectarian animosities when they attack police recruits or interim government officials as collaborators. Many of these recruits are Shiites or Kurds, and the loss of life reverberates through their families and communities.

    In recent weeks, at least one new Shiite militia has formed - not in opposition to the Americans, but to exact revenge against the Sunnis.

    American officials pin their hope of ultimately bringing peace to Iraq on the success of the January elections and the formation of an elected government, and they do not think a full-scale civil war is inevitable. They say Iraqi society is an elaborate mosaic where groups have coexisted for a long time. They point out that not all Sunnis are in open rebellion or reject the elections. Just last week, Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, the president of Iraq and a leader in a powerful Sunni tribe, said his new party would compete in the elections. And some Americans predict that once Sunnis see the elections going forward as planned, most will resign themselves to taking part.

    Still, continuing violence creates pressure for animosities to build. Assaults by Iraqis on other Iraqis have taken grisly and audacious turns lately. In October, insurgents dressed as policemen waylaid three minibuses carrying 49 freshly trained Iraqi Army soldiers - most or all of them Shiites traveling south on leave - and executed them. Pilgrims going south to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala have also been gunned down.

    In response, Shiite leaders in the southern city of Basra began telling young men last month that it was time for revenge. They organized hundreds of Shiites into the Anger Brigades, the latest of many armed groups that have announced their formation in the anarchy of the new Iraq. The stated goal of the brigades is to kill extremist Sunni Arabs in the north Babil area, widely known as the "Triangle of Death," where many Shiite security officers and pilgrims have been killed.

    "The Wahhabis and Salafis have come together to harm fellow Muslims and have begun killing anyone affiliated with the Shiite sect," Dhia al-Mahdi, the leader of the Anger Brigades, said in a written statement. "The Anger Brigades will be dispatched to those areas where these germs are, and there will be battles."

    It is unclear whether the Anger Brigades have made good on their threats yet, but their very formation hints at how much the dynamics of violence have shifted in Iraq.

    James Fearon, a professor of political science at Stanford University, pointed to the creation of such groups as "part of the civil-war-in-the-making we see now." He also said that the history of colonial rule teaches that civil conflict can result when an occupying power favors some local groups over others and uses its favorites as military proxies, a common strategy among imperial powers.

    Within the new Iraqi security forces, Kurds, and to a lesser extent Shiites, have proven to be the most effective fighters against the Sunni-led insurgency, and the American military and the interim Iraqi government are drawing greatly from the militias of the big Kurdish and Shiite political parties.

    The strategy surfaced dramatically last month in Mosul, a city in northern Iraq where violence flared even as American troops carried out their devastating assault on insurrectionists in the Sunni stronghold of Falluja. In Mosul, the governor trucked in 2,000 Kurdish militiamen, and much of the fighting that followed took place in the city's Sunni Arab neighborhoods, where American convoys are now attacked daily.

    Mosul is a microcosm of the problems afflicting Iraq, and civil conflict is clearly on the rise there. The insurgency is being organized by former Baath Party officials who are intent on retaking power from fellow Iraqis, rather than by jihadists simply trying to sow anarchy, said Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of a task force charged with controlling the far north. The guerrillas have executed at least 90 Iraqis in recent days, many from the nascent security forces.

    In the past, the American military command here often emphasized the role of foreign mujahedeen in the rebellion. Recently, it has acknowledged that Iraqis form the vast majority of the insurgents, but it continues to use the term "anti-Iraqi forces" to describe all rebels. While the term does describe their opposition to the interim Iraqi government, it still obscures the gradual shifting of this war into civil conflict. In fact, fewer than 5 percent of the first 1,000 detainees captured during the recent fighting in Falluja were foreigners.

    One of the most significant signs of the hardening divisions among Iraqis was that the Shiites did little to protest the Falluja offensive. Last April, when American marines launched their first and ultimately ill-fated invasion of Falluja, Moktada al-Sadr, a firebrand Shiite cleric, led an uprising in an effort to form a united front against the occupation. The second time around, his top aide only made a brief televised declaration criticizing the much more violent American assault. And Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, did not immediately condemn the invasion.

    "So many victims of the revolt have been Shia, especially the police and army recruits and officers killed in large numbers at least once every week or two," Mark Levine, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of California at Irvine, wrote in an essay after the battle for Falluja. Such attacks, and the introduction of foreign Sunni fighters in Iraq, he continued, "have resurrected the Shia anger at the suffering they endured under Saddam's rule."

    The biggest bellwether of an emerging civil conflict could be the elections, when political feuding over whether to participate could quickly lead to armed clashes.

    Against that backdrop, the Pentagon last week announced it would increase the number of troops here to 150,000 from 138,000, to help guard against disruptive violence directed, presumably by Sunni insurgents, at candidates and voters - the most enthusiastic of whom will no doubt be Shiites and Kurds.


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    U.N. Envoy Says Iraq Is a 'Mess'
    By Alissa J. Rubin
    The Los Angeles Times

    Sunday 05 December 2004

Lakhdar Brahimi tells a paper that he doubts it is possible to hold an election amid the violence. Two car bombs leave 14 people dead.

    Baghdad - Car bombs wreaked havoc in Baghdad and northern Iraq on Saturday, killing at least 14 people, as the U.N. special envoy to Iraq said the election scheduled for the end of January might have to be postponed.

    A delay in the election would anger many Shiite Muslims, who are expected to win the largest portion of the seats in the transitional national assembly to be chosen in the vote.

    And it would derail American plans to begin reducing the number of troops in Iraq next year.

    Four U.S. troops died Saturday. Two were killed in an attack in Mosul, the military said, and two others were killed by roadside bombs in Baghdad and Baqubah, 35 miles northeast of the capital. The military also announced that a suicide car bombing Friday killed two members of the U.S.-led forces near Trebil, a town close to the border with Jordan. Their nationalities were not given.

    In one of the car bombings targeting Iraqis on Saturday, seven people were killed at the Karkh police station, one of the larger police offices in Baghdad. Although the tactic of targeting police stations is not new, the insurgents appear to be using it now to undermine voter confidence. The police and the Iraqi national guard will be responsible for protecting polling stations on election day.

    In an article published in a Dutch newspaper Saturday, U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said bluntly, "It is a mess in Iraq." Asked whether it was possible to hold elections under current conditions, Brahimi said, "If the circumstances stay as they are, I don't think so," according to a Reuters report on the article.

    The U.N. has been under intense pressure from Washington to accelerate its election preparations. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell asked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan at their recent meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheik to speed election preparations and increase the number of electoral experts in Iraq, U.S. and U.N. officials said.

    Annan and U.N. election officials have said that polling preparations are on track, and they are quietly building up the U.N. presence in Iraq. But the United Nations has also said that security conditions are the primary consideration in determining whether the election can be held as planned.

    In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last month, Annan said he would not shrink from telling Iraqi officials if he thought the January vote were not feasible, although it would be up to the Iraqi government to decide whether to hold the election.

    "As we go, we will give them honest advice," he said.

    The United Nations' view on the viability of elections is crucial because U.N. officials may be the only ones with enough credibility to persuade the Shiite leadership, and specifically Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, that a delay would be for the good of the country and would not compromise Shiite ambitions for political power.

    Sistani, the senior religious leader for Iraqi Shiites, wanted a direct election to be held in June, but after hearing from U.N. technical experts, he agreed to wait six months to facilitate broader participation. It is unclear whether he could be persuaded to wait longer.

    Any delay without Sistani's approval could cause a massive backlash from the country's majority Shiites, who are eager to make themselves heard after 30 years of repression under Saddam Hussein.

    Iraq's Sunni Muslims argue that the instability in predominantly Sunni regions makes it unlikely that significant numbers of Sunnis will be able to participate.

    An election in which Sunnis were not well represented would probably fuel the insurgency and endanger the rights of minorities because there would be proportionately fewer voices from minority groups in the transitional assembly that would oversee the writing of a new constitution for the country.

    Brahimi was careful to leave the door open to proceeding with the election and called on the international community and the Americans "to help clean up this mess. If you let it deteriorate, the situation will become even more dangerous."

    Robert Callahan, a spokesman in Baghdad for U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte, said Brahimi's comments "are not going to sway us."

    But Callahan minimized differences with Brahimi, noting that U.S. officials would agree that three of the 18 provinces were troubled areas, "but we think we can improve the situation.... We have two months to improve the security situation."

    The reality on the ground, however, raises serious questions about the ability of the U.S. military to defeat the insurgency in seven weeks.

    Although last month's offensive in Fallouja killed many insurgents, destroyed some of their weapons caches and eliminated the city as a haven, it also appeared to have speeded the spread of the insurgency to other cities, notably the northern city of Mosul, where there have been numerous attacks on Kurds and on Iraqi national guardsmen.

    On Saturday, a car bomb plowed into a bus carrying Kurdish members of the Iraqi Facilities Protection Service from the city of Irbil to Mosul, said Saad Ahmed Bira, chief of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Mosul. He said 13 to 15 members of the force, which guards government installations, were killed. Medical authorities in Irbil put the number of dead at seven.

    A group led by Al Qaeda ally Abu Musab Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on an Islamist website, Reuters reported.

    "A brave fighter from the martyrs' brigade struck at a convoy of the apostate party of Kurdish agents," said the statement from the Qaeda Organization for Jihad in Iraq.

    The car bomb at the Karkh police station exploded about 9:30 in the morning, shattering windows in the neighboring Ministry of Housing and Reconstruction. The bomb injured dozens of people and damaged a second police building nearby.

    Almost every window in the Housing Ministry building was shattered, and clouds of smoke and debris forced hundreds of people just starting their workday to leave their offices. Several people said they did not know when they would be able to return to work because of the damage.

    Although there were reports that two bombs had exploded, witnesses said only one had.

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