How bad is the situation in Iraq? How much worse is it likely to get?
The answer to the first question is pretty bad. With more than 130 dead in sectarian clashes throughout the country and several dozen Sunni mosques set afire in retaliation for the destruction of one the Shi’ite s holiest places, the Askariya Shrine, many are saying that Iraq is close to a sectarian civil war.
Which brings us to the second question; is a civil war possible and how likely is it?
Bill Roggio gives us some leading indicators to watch for regarding the probability of full scale conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites:
â€¢ The Shiite United Iraqi Alliance no longer seeks to form a unity government and marginalize the Shiite political blocks.
â€¢ Sunni political parties withdraw from the political process.
â€¢ Kurds make hard push for independence/full autonomy.
â€¢ Grand Ayatollah Sistani ceases calls for calm, no longer takes a lead role in brokering peace.
â€¢ Muqtada al-Sadr becomes a leading voice in Shiite politics.
â€¢ Major political figures – Shiite and Sunni – openly call for retaliation.
â€¢ The Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party and Muslim Scholars Association openly call for the formation of Sunni militias.
â€¢ Interior Ministry ceases any investigations into torture and death squads, including the case against recently uncovered problems with the Highway Patrol.
â€¢ Defense Minister Dulaimi (a Sunni) is asked to step down from his post.
â€¢ Iraqi Security Forces begins severing ties with the Coalition, including:
o Disembeddeding the Military Transition Teams.
o Requests U.S. forces to vacate Forward Operating Bases / Battle Positions in Western and Northern Iraq.
o Alienates Coalition at training academies.
Bill lists several other signs including the Shi’ite dominated military and police standing by while the violence against Sunnis escalates, the mobilization of Shi’ite militias, and the active participation of military and police units in the violence against Sunnis.
Outside of the main Sunni political alliance withdrawing from talks to form a government (something they have done before), none of Bill’s other criteria for civil war are being met. There have been scattered reports of security forces joining in the destruction of Sunni mosques but these reports are unconfirmed and there appears to be no widespread action by the army or police against Sunnis.
No major political figures – including the man who is considered most responsible for the anti-Sunni violence Muqtada al Sadr – have called for violent retaliation. Sadr’s militia which is composed mostly of street thugs and unemployed youth have apparently taken it upon themselves to carry out retaliatory raids without the blessing of their leader.
This is to be expected at least for the moment. Sadr still wants to be a player in the government and any outward call for violence on his part would scuttle his hopes. That is, unless the violence continues in which case he and his militia could emerge (as Bill points out) as the sharp end of the stick in the kind of street fighting that would erupt in a full scale civil war. For the moment, his followers seem to know what to do without him saying a word. His position could actually be strengthened if he can reign them in after a couple of days at which point he could proclaim himself a peacemaker of sorts.
In this charged up atmosphere, both sides are seeking to blame the US. The Sunnis say our troops are standing by while their mosques are being burned and people are slaughtered. The Shi’ites complain that because we’ve restrained them in the past when Sunnis were slaughtering Shi’ites, outrages like the destruction of the shrine became more likely.
One could say as long as they are blaming us, they’re not going at each other full bore, which is cold comfort given the circumstances. That could change in a matter of hours.
Other Shi’ite leaders including the influential spiritual leader Ayatollah al-Sistani have called for “peaceful protests” and eschewed violence. And as the site Healing Iraq points out, the Sunnis have been strangely quiet:
So far, there has been no retaliation by any Sunni groups. There was news of a bombing at a small Shiâ€™ite shrine in the Karrada district called Maqam Sayyid Edriess, but no details on that. A couple of insurgent groups with ties to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, notably the Mujahideen Council, have denied any responsibility of the Samarra attack. This leads us to wonder, if the Sunni groups have been planning to start a civil war all along, as many analysts have claimed, why are they so silent now? Where is Zarqawi? I am actually baffled by the lack of reprisals or any other response from the Sunni community. That could be the only glimmer of hope we have now. For how long, though? Friday prayers are tomorrow, and that is bad. But then again, maybe there wonâ€™t be any Friday prayers, as it looks like most of the mosques are either closed or taken over by Mahdi militiamen, at least in Shiâ€™ite and mixed areas.
One other hopeful sign; there apparently are many mixed Sunni and Shi’ite neighborhoods where residents are working together to protect Sunni lives and property. And there are many ordinary Shi’ites who vigorously condemned the attacks on Sunnis:
Still, the neighborhood itself did not divide along sectarian lines: Shiite residents also condemned Wednesday’s assaults. Neighborhoods all over Baghdad reported similar camaraderie.
“As a Shiite, I do not accept this,” said Saadiya Salim, a 50-year-old homemaker. “These acts will lead to violence, because the Sunnis will attack” Shiite mosques.
As the afternoon dragged on and law enforcers were nowhere to be seen, neighborhoods seemed to shrink into themselves, setting up makeshift roadblocks out of the trunks of palm trees and, pieces of castaway metal stoves.
It was behind such a barricade that a frightened group of Sunni men took refuge, blocking off the entrance to their mosque, Malik bin Anas, in Al Moalimin district. Men with machine guns stood on the roof, their faces wrapped in scarves.
Will we look back and recall the destruction of the Shrine as Iraq’s Fort Sumter, the start of a bloody civil war? Or, will we mark it down as more of the same sectarian bloodletting that has plagued this tragic country since the overthrow of Saddam?
The US believes that the institutions of government in Iraq are strong enough to confront this crisis and overcome the violence. This may be true although other, unforseen circumstances could change that in a hurry. The point being, it is not likely that the destruction of the Shrine presages an all out civil war.
A more apt analogy than Fort Sumter where the first shots of the American Civil War were fired would be what became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
Following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 that divided an unorganized territory into two potential states, settlers poured in because of a rider to the Act that allowed for “popular sovereignty” to decide the slavery question. Northern abolitionists sponsored settlers opposed to slavery while southern groups sent their supporters into the territories in order to vote for slavery. What started as a land rush became a bloody mess as Missouri “border ruffians” clashed with free state “Jayhawkers” all over the Kansas territory. When the pro-slavery groups sacked and burned the town of Lawrence, Kansas in 1856, retaliation came in the form of a wild-eyed Ohioan named John Brown who dragged 7 men and boys out of their houses and hacked them to death with broadswords.
The sacking of Lawrence and Brown’s retaliation was the catalyst for a bloody cycle of violence that became known as “Bleeding Kansas” which was to plague the state until the end of the Civil War and after.
The parallel to Iraq is obvious. And the danger is the same as well. Bleeding Kansas is considered one of the causes of the Civil War. And while the destruction of the Askariya Shrine will probably not be the immediate cause of a civil war in Iraq, it could nevertheless initiate a cycle of violence that once started, may be impossible to turn off.
This is the biggest test so far for the Iraqi government. It remains to be seen whether they have the strength and will to meet it.