The prospect of civil war in Iraq

A low-grade war between Sunnis and Shiites may already be in progress.

More and more, especially since the bombing of the Golden Dome mosque in Samarra on Feb. 22, Iraqi violence seems to be turning inward.

Last Sunday, to pick a typical day when 50 persons were killed by mortar attack, firefights, roadside bombs, and other explosions, only six were Americans.

According to data compiled by the Brookings Institution, American fatalities were down to 30 for all of last month. This while the number of Iraqis killed - police officers, soldiers, and civilians - was up to 75 a day.

Failure so far to form a united government undoubtedly contributes to this internal strife. It has become customary to speak of being on the edge of a sectarian civil war. "On the edge" may be an understatement. A low-grade war between Sunni Muslims and Shiites may already be in progress.

Reuel Marc Gerecht of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington speaks of Baghdad as "a killing zone where Iraq's leaders can safely gather only under US protection."

In The New Yorker magazine this week, George Packer, who has spent considerable time recently in Iraq, writes extensively about the prospect of a civil war added to an insurgency. And, for a more chilling prospect if American forces withdraw, Packer paints this picture:

"...Killings on a larger scale than anything yet seen ... Baghdad and other mixed cities would be divided up into barricaded sectors. And a civil war in the center of the country might spread to a regional war.... The Shiite south would fall deeper under Iranian control. Kurdistan would try to break away.... Iraq in the hands of militias and terrorists, manipulated by neighboring states, would threaten the Middle East and the US for many years."

This is the specter that haunts American and British diplomats as they desperately try to pressure Iraqi parties and factions to patch together a government.

Scary? You bet.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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