Iraq's Sunni-Shiite anguish grows

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When National Intelligence Director John Negroponte briefed the Senate last week on Iraq, he cautioned lawmakers that the hope for stability there rests on quelling unabated sectarian violence.

That view was reflected in a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), parts of which were declassified Friday, that describes an Iraq Army and police bedeviled by the sectarian allegiances of their members. The report deemed it unlikely that these forces will move effectively against militias in the next 18 months – particularly against the Shiite groups with ties to Iraq's ruling parties.

Indeed, US military officials cautioned patience – despite the deployment of an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq.

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"[That] will not turn the security situation overnight," Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said in Baghdad. "Iraqi forces suffer deficiencies in leadership and logistics. It will take more than two months to solve these problems."

The urgent need to address the strife that flows in Baghdad's streets as well as its political corridors was painfully evident in a devastating weekend attack.

The deadliest single suicide bombing since the war began hit a crowded Shiite market on Saturday, leaving at least 135 Iraqis dead.

Overall, the assessment from the NIE, a report from the US intelligence community, was bleak, especially in its evaluation of the ability of Iraqi security forces to get its arms around the burgeoning violence.

The violence is also leading to even greater polarization of Iraqi society, both among the man on the street and the country's political leaders, the report found.

Also, it underscored what experts and US government analysts have been saying for some time – that the solution to Iraq's problems rests on the creation of a national compact that will involve compromise for the country's Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. It noted that the trend is in the other direction.

"Even if the violence is diminished, the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation" over the next 18 months, the term of the estimate, the report says.

Despite the report's downbeat assessment, it argues in line with the Bush administration that the situation would be worse if US troops were to withdraw now.

The report makes the argument that if the US withdrew "rapidly," Iraq's security force would be "unlikely to survive as a nonsectarian national institution," that "massive civilian casualties and forced population displacement would be probable," and that outside countries "might" intervene directly in the conflict.

While the report finds that Iran provides support to Shiite militants, and says Syria isn't stopping the flow of foreign militants across its borders, it also argues that the solution to Iraq's problems does not lie in Damascus or Tehran.

"The involvement of these outside actors is not likely to be a major driver of violence ... because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq's internal sectarian dynamics," notes the report.

In the same vein, the report stated that the term "civil war does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq" but that it "accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict."

As American forces start to move into Baghdad for the escalation of the US military presence there, there were also reminders of the growing sophistication of the country's insurgents.

General Caldwell, the top US military spokesman in Iraq, said Sunday that the three American helicopters that have crashed since mid-January, causing the loss of 16 US service members, were all shot down by ground fire. These three incidents constitute the most successful spate of insurgent attacks on US air power since the start of the war.

In the wake of Saturday's bombing, Shiite militia leaders blamed US efforts to curtail sectarian groups for the attack. Some said that joint US and Iraqi operations against them, which have recently netted scores militants, prevented them from securing their own neighborhoods.

There's little evidence that the militias do a better job of maintaining security than US and Iraqi forces – large-scale attacks have hit Shiite enclaves before. Such attacks have led average people to turn to the militias in frustration, and to blame the US for a security situation.

On Saturday, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most respected religious figure broke more than three months of self-imposed silence, issuing a statement urging Shiites and Sunnis to set aside their differences.

Ayatollah Sistani had been a major figure calling for moderation, particularly among his Shiite constituency, during the first two years of the war. But he has largely withdrawn from making public statements as the violence has escalated.

His new fatwa, or religious edict, said, "The Islamic nation is passing through difficult conditions and facing tremendous challenges that threaten its future. . . Everybody knows the necessity for us to stand together and reject the sectarian tension to avoid stirring sectarian differences."

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