America holds its breath over Iraq

Two days after the bombing of one of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines in Iraq, analysts are holding their breath, hoping that a rapid descent into a sectarian civil war in Iraq can still be avoided, if not reversed.

While last Friday curfew and appeals for restraint across Iraq appeared to have prevented any major outbreak of violence like that which reportedly took more than 130 lives and damaged or destroyed nearly 200 Sunni mosques last Wednesday and Thursday, experts here warned that it was far too early to exhale. “It will take several days to see,” according to David Newton, who served as Washington’s ambassador to Baghdad in the late 1980s. Even President Bush noted that neither Iraq nor the US was out of the woods.

Last Wednesday’s bombing and the retaliatory attacks marked an extremely serious setback to efforts by US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to negotiate an agreement among the major parties for the creation of a new government that will satisfy the minimum demands of the Sunni population. “I think this is the most dangerous event that has occurred since the fall of Saddam Hussein,” Marc Reuel Gerecht, a Gulf specialist at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute, said.

Officials and analysts expressed great concern over a suggestion by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most influential cleric, that Shiites may have to depend on their own forces to defend against insurgent attacks. That even Sistani was losing patience and considering giving formal dispensation to sectarian militias added to the sense that Iraq was teetering on the edge of the abyss. “We may be on the verge of taking communal violence to the next level,” warned Juan Cole, president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). According to Louay Bahry, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute (MEI), both Sunni and Shiite political leaders are almost certain to harden their positions in negotiations with Khalilzad over the formation of a new government. Khalilzad has been pressing the main Shiite coalition to accommodate several key Sunni demands in order to create a government of national unity. Of these, the most important include banning the appointment of politicians tied to Shiite militias to top posts in the Interior and Defence ministries and amending the constitution to take far greater account of their core concerns. Khalilzad had become increasingly outspoken on the importance of purging the police, which has been accused of shielding “death squads” tied to Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI) and the Mahdi Army, of sectarian influences. Khalilzad suggested that Washington was prepared to withdraw its “billions of dollars” in support to Iraq’s security forces, declaring, “We are not going to invest the resources of the American people to build forces run by people who are sectarian.”

That warning provoked bitter reactions among Shiite leaders after the bombing. SCIRI’s powerful leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim charged that Khalilzad had “contributed to greater pressure on Shiites and gave a green light to terrorist groups, and he bears a part of the responsibility.” “It’s very clear that the Shiites are interpreting this chain of events as evidence that the Americans are weak and can’t protect Shiite interests,” Cole said. — IPS