Will Shiites hold their fire?

Sunday's bombings in Shiite holy cities - the deadliest insurgent attacks since July - appeared aimed at sparking sectarian strife.

Tuesday afternoon, as Shiites buried and mourned the dozens of victims of car-bombings in Karbala and Najaf, a smaller bomb exploded in the outskirts of Karbala. In the northern city of Mosul at least 20 people were killed and 60 injured in a noontime attack on a US military base.

Despite the ongoing violence, back in Baghdad preparations for the Jan. 30 elections carried on. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on a surprise visit to the capital, urged Iraqis to support elections and described the ongoing violence in Iraq as a "battle between democracy and terror."

Sunday's bombings illuminate the threats facing Iraq's upcoming election. Most Shiite Muslim leaders, and many Sunni Muslims, say the attacks are intended to foment a civil war between the religious factions that would undermine the elections.

"Civil war is not inevitable, but I don't think the country is going to settle down simply on the basis of a one-person, one-vote political system,'' says Marina Ottaway, codirector of the democracy and rule of law project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washing- ton. "The elections aren't going to change the political dynamics and drive a wedge between the insurgents and the general population."

So far Shiite leaders are responding with calls for calm instead of demanding revenge against the Sunni militants - who most people in the two cities suspect were behind the Sunday bombings.

Shiite leadership expects to emerge victorious in the scheduled elections, which should see Iraq's Shiite population transfer it's majority into political power for the first time. And they say they are committed to taking power by peaceful means.

While that's a sign of political maturity, it does not address the demonstrated strength of an insurgency that analysts expect will persist even after elections. Attacks have been on the rise again in Iraq over the past month following a lull after the US offensive in Fallujah.

Ms. Ottaway says the only way to head off more violence - and the pressure it will create within the Shiite community to react - is for the Shiite leaders to codify some power-sharing with Sunnis. "The most important thing that could be done would be to negotiate something so that the Sunnis start to see there's hope for them in the new system,'' she says.

Sunnis in general are worried that the election will lead to Shiite domination. Militant Sunni groups say they won't respect the results of a poll carried out under US auspices.

As at least three Shiite groups retain large private militias, many may respond to ongoing attacks "by striking back at the Sunnis, rather than seeking to include them,'' says Anthony Cordesman, a senior Iraq analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"Shiite political leaders have generally been careful to avoid this so far, but the preaching in mosques has become more polarized and popular tension is growing," he says.

The Sunday attack on a crowded bus station in Karbala seemed designed to cause general chaos and fear. The blast in Najaf came during the funeral of an important local sheikh, and may have been an assassination attempt. The bomb exploded close to both the region's governor and its police chief, though neither man was hurt.

The bombings were just the biggest in a recent string of attacks in the two Shiite shrine cities. Karbala was also hit last week, in what police said was a bombing designed to kill an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite preacher. That blast killed eight.

Ayatollah Sistani has backed the electoral process, leaning on Shiite factions to put together a master list of candidates that looks set to dominate the election. He's issued statements that voting is a religious duty and urged calm and condemned violence.

While most Shiite leaders have voiced suspicion that the attacks were designed to engineer a civil war between Sunni and Shiite that could upset the elections, they have also promised that they won't be drawn into war.

"They want to make a civil war. These are Shiite cities, but the attackers will not have an effect on elections," said Ammar Dakhl al-Assaidi, a spokesman for the Shiite Dawa party, quoted by AFP. Even a representative of Moqtada al-Sadr, seen as the most militant of the prominent Shiite leaders, called for calm, saying "civil war would be hell."

He said he believed the attacks were tied to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Sunni militant with some ties to Al Qaeda who has appeared to call for stirring up sectarian violence on Internet postings.

Throughout Iraq's history, its government has been dominated by Iraq's powerful Sunni Arab minority, leaving many Sunni's who prospered under Saddam Hussein fearful about their futures.

While tension is likely to mark Iraq for some time, some analysts caution, there is a huge range of possibilities between peaceful and democratic coexistence and civil war.

"No matter what happens you're going to have Sunni hard-line elements that probably remain active until at least 2006,'' says Mr. Cordesman. "What you're not going to get is some kind of clear ethnic split leading to a Balkan-like civil war - there are too many people who share the same interests on both sides."

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