A widening sectarian rift pushes Iraq to the brink of civil war

Al Qaeda is now actively pitting Sunnis against Shiites, fueling civil violence.

While Israel's war in Lebanon dominates news headlines, Iraq is sinking deeper into sectarian strife. Hardly a day goes by without a massacre carried out by either a Shiite death squad or an extremist Sunni group. Iraq stands on the brink of all-out sectrian strife.

The new Iraqi government is not functioning as effectively as it had been hoped, and most Iraqi politicians act more as functionaries for their sects and tribes than nationalist leaders. The American military presence is fueling a broadly based insurgency. Al Qaeda in Iraq is also pouring fuel on a raging sectarian fire.

Bombings and shootings soared by 40 percent in the Baghdad area in the past week, according to the US military. A report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq said nearly 6,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in May and June in a wave of assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, torture, and intimidation.

Although Iraqi politicians say they are committed to ethnic and religious coexistence and power sharing, they face an uphill battle in their effort to halt the accelerating cycles of sectarian violence. Iraqi mass society is becoming more polarized along sectarian lines by the day. Tit-for-tat killings by armed Sunni Arab and Shiite militias sow hatred and threaten to sink the country into all-out urban warfare.

What is alarming is that the pace of sectarian killing has increased, not decreased as had been hoped, since the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq, and with the formation of a more rep- resentative government in Baghdad.

What explains the persistent and spiraling sectarian strife? Now that Shiite death squads, which infiltrated Iraqi forces, are doing as much killing as their militant Sunni Arab counterparts, Sunni Arabs no longer have a monopoly on the insurgency. Both camps include powerful well-organized, militant forces that want a divorce, and not a unified, multiethnic state. By carrying out a campaign of systematic sectarian killings and redrawing the map of Baghdad, armed Sunni and Shiite militias have pushed the country closer to full-scale civil war. This analysis might be dismissed by Iraqis as academic because they say they are living in the midst of civil war.

It was widely assumed that Mr. Zarqawi's death would herald a shift in Al Qaeda's strategy, as it was also assumed that Zarqawi had acted against the will of his senior bosses, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, in targeting Shiites and their religious shrines. Mr. bin Laden's recent rhetoric clearly shows otherwise. In an apparent, dramatic shift of strategy, bin Laden, in two audiotapes posted on an Al Qaeda website, called on Sunnis everywhere to punish the Shiites whom he referred to as "rejectionists," "traitors," and "agents of the Americans." Believing that Sunni Arabs are experiencing "annihilation," bin Laden warned Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims they were not safe from Al Qaeda's new leader in the country, Abu Hamza al-Muhajer (his real identity still unknown), whom he endorsed as Zarqawi's successor.

Designed to gain Al Qaeda new recruits and stature among Sunni Arabs, bin Laden's call complicates the efforts by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to end the sectarian bloodletting that is tearing the country apart.

Unfortunately, Mr. Maliki's offer to Sunni Arab insurgents of a partial amnesty in return for their disarming and submitting to Iraqi law found few takers. Spokesmen for the two most powerful insurgent groups – the Islamic Army and the 1920 Revolution Brigade – told Al Jazeera television that they would reject the initiative unless it included a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops. Shiite leaders also differed on the scope of Maliki's reconciliation plan.

Now American military commanders publicly acknowledge the grave crisis facing Maliki's two-month-old national unity government. Maliki himself, who is meeting in Washington with President Bush Tuesday, sounded a note of despair in an interview with the independent Kuwaiti newspaper, Al-Qabas. He stressed that if his government fails to mend the communal rift and stop the sectarian violence, "there will be no Iraq left."

Indeed, Iraq's future hangs in the balance. Political progress has not arrested chaos and turmoil. The challenge facing Iraqis is how to prevent the low-grade civil war from spiraling out of control.

Fawaz A. Gerges is a Carnegie Scholar and professor at Sarah Lawrence College. He is spending 15 months in the Middle East conducting field research.

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