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Iraqi leaders sidestep all-out civil war

After a violent week in Iraq, the possibility of large-scale Sunni-Shiite conflict still looms.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 27, 2006



BAGHDAD

After a weekend of sleepless nights, emergency meetings, and an unprecedented three-day curfew, Iraq has managed to stave off its worst fear after last week's destruction of a major Shiite shrine: That the country's small-scale civil conflict was about to bloom into a bloody and wide-ranging war between its sects.

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But disturbing signs are emerging that Iraq's sectarian powder-keg is still highly volatile.

A pattern of politics drawn along sectarian or ethnic lines has strengthened in the wake of Saddam Hussein's rule. Leading moderate voices like Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have taken harder lines, and the growing authority of unelected clerics in determining Iraq's future is presenting new hurdles to the unity government most experts believe is needed to bring stability.

Two Shiite mosques were attacked Sunday and a bomb on a bus in the city of Hillah killed five people despite restrictions on movement that kept Baghdad streets deserted and businesses shuttered.

On Saturday night, representatives of militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Sunni clerics from the powerful Muslim Scholars Association prayed together in a televised ceremony from Baghdad's Abu Hanifa mosque, a Sunni landmark. The clerics condemned recent attacks on Shiite and Sunni houses of worship and jointly forbade any actions leading to fitnah, or strife among Muslims.

Political leaders from all factions, who received a series of personal calls from President Bush on Saturday, echoed those sentiments in a separate meeting.

"Last night [at] the meeting between the different political parties, we agreed on some important points that might cool things down, like promises not to attack mosques,'' says Saleh al-Mutlak, a leader of the main Sunni front in parliament. "The general environment was not that bad, they are listening now, [the] Shiites know the civil war will hurt everybody including themselves."

"Everyone believes that the prospect for a civil war has diminished significantly in the course of the last several days, and that's clearly a good thing,'' US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters in a conference call on Saturday.

Shiite militias remain heavily armed and emotional, and on Sunday continued to move into some Sunni neighborhoods in the capital. Clerics are emerging as the only voices that can quell the violence, even as they've come under pressure from their followers to demand revenge. Even Ayatollah Sistani has advocated the founding of additional sectarian militias, drawn from southern tribes, to protect Shiite interests.

"It may well be that things will die down now,'' says Joost Hilterman, who runs the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Middle East Project in Amman, Jordan. "But the structural dynamic still points toward civil war, and the institutions that could restrain it have become severely weakened."

Sectarian violence since the Shiite Askariyah Shrine in Samarra was destroyed last Wednesday has claimed at least 250 lives, and the Sunni-based Iraqi Islamic Party says 120 Sunni mosques have been attacked. Dozens of the dead have been found executed, their hands bound, on the outskirts of Baghdad.

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