Sunnis surge beyond Baghdad
Extremists are using violence to drive a wedge further between Shiites and Sunnis, posing more challenges for the US.
A wave of sectarian attacks that swept Iraq last week and this weekend is giving new steam to hard-liners of all stripes.Skip to next paragraph
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From mosques to party headquarters, extremists have seized on the events to drive a wedge further between Shiite and Sunni, laying down tough challenges to US and Iraqi forces.
At least 600 Iraqis died in the violence last week, the deadliest period since the Baghdad security plan started in February.
While US and Iraqi officials say that Baghdad is quieter, violence has grown outside the capital. Bombings in Tal Afar provoked Shiite policemen to kill dozens of Sunnis in retaliation. Insurgents targeted other Shiite areas, and in Mosul on Sunday bombs exploded at an Iraqi Army base. In March, some 1,861 Iraqis were killed, 216 more than in February.
The surge in attacks is part of a bid by militantSunnis to undermine the Shiite-led government, says Joost Hiltermann, an analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG) based in Amman, Jordan. "The takfeeris have stepped up their attacks to show that they control the streets and do whatever they want," he says referring to Sunnis who consider Shiites infidels and attack them.
Mr. Hiltermann also says Sunni militants want to provoke Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army to retaliate. That, he says, would expose them to US forces that have been pursuing and arresting several prominent members of the Mahdi Army. The militia is implicated in sectarian killing and accused of using Iranian-made bombs against US troops.
While the sectarian vitriol appeared to reach new heights over the weekend, US lawmakers who were in Iraq Sunday said there was indeed progress as a result of the Baghdad security plan.
"The American people are not getting the full picture of what's happening here. They're not getting the full picture of the drop in murders, the establishment of security outposts throughout the city, the situation in Anbar Province, the deployment of additional Iraqi brigades that are performing well, and other signs of progress having been made," said Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential hopeful from Arizona.
US commander Gen. David Petraeus said in a statement Friday that Al Qaeda elements in Iraq were carrying out "barbaric actions" to fuel sectarian strife and undermine the "successes" of improving Baghdad security.
Americans launch new police initiative
The retaliatory killing by Shiite Iraqi police in Tal Afar after Tuesday's bombing that killed 152 people, according to the Iraqi government, underscores the uphill battle faced by the US in training the country's national and local police. Despite much effort and money spent over the past few years, police forces are still prone to sectarianism. Many in Shiite parts of the country are believed to be beholden to Mr. Sadr's militia.
Capt. Mario Oliva, a US military officer involved in another retraining program for the national police dubbed "Re-blue," summed up the challenge as follows: "There is so much demand for police that they just hired people off the street. We need to polish them, get them in the right uniform, and teach them how to protect and not hurt their own people."
But the ICG's Hiltermann says that the problem lies deeper than that.
He says Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government was unwilling and incapable of rooting out sectarianism and that it was "folly" for the US to expect otherwise. "They are dysfunctional and too weak to do it. They are part of the sectarian conflict. This government is so much a part of the problem that you can't ask it to reach out to the other side, especially Sunnis."
Indeed, the Tal Afar bombing has provided fodder for Sunni hard-liners who oppose the Maliki government.