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Friday, February 24, 2006

Iraq: Sect against sect


The bombing of the sacred Shia al-Askariya mosque in Samarra has sparked off the most serious bout of sectarian violence in Iraq since the US-led invasion, putting the whole process of political reconstruction at risk. There is little room for doubt that the perpetrators were from an extreme wing of the insurgency, and that one of their objectives was to undermine the recent efforts to draw Sunni Arabs into the Shia-dominated political process. Work is still likely to go ahead on the formation of a new government by the constitutional deadline of April 10th, but the reaction to the attack on the mosque suggests that the effectiveness of this administration will be severely compromised, with more power flowing to party militias.

Ultimate target

The al-Qaida-inspired wing of the insurgency has made no secret of its disdain for the Shia sect, and it has directed dozens of operations against Shia targets, including the assassination of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim in August 2003 and the killing of hundreds of pilgrims in the holy city of Karbala during the Shia Ashura festival in March 2004. However, the attack on the Samarra mosque, which is believed to house the remains of the 10th and 11th Shia imams, was a direct attack on one of the central symbols of the Shia sect, and has consequently produced a much stronger sectarian reaction.

Shia leaders have put the blame squarely on the "takfiris" (believers in excommunication of unfit Muslims, including, in some interpretations, the Shia), and have issued calls for restraint. The spate of sectarian killings in the aftermath of the attack--mainly directed at Sunnis--has exposed the limitations of these calls, but the real test will come with the congregation of large numbers of Muslims of both sects at their mosques for Friday prayers.

Some of the blame has also been directed at the US, whose ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been putting pressure of the Iraqi authorities to limit the role of party militias. This brought a sharp rejoinder from Abdelaziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), whose affiliated Badr Brigade is one of the largest and best equipped of these militias. After the attacks, several Shia leaders, including Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme religious authority for the sect in Iraq, have indicated that if the regular security forces cannot safeguard the security of mosques, then "the believers"--in other words the militias--should take on this role. This raises the prospect of large swathes of Iraq falling under the sway of rival Shia militias--the Badr Brigade and Mr Sadr's Mahdi Army, as well as Ayatollah Sistani's own security detail. This would open up the prospect of turf wars breaking out between these rival forces, possibly involving rival factions in Iran.

The attack has also put paid, for now, to the talks between the main Shia political front, the United Iraqi Alliance, and the Sunni parties, which hold 55 of the 275 seats in parliament, about forming a broad coalition government. The Sunni groups have withdrawn from these talks in protest at the lack of action from the authorities to stop revenge killings of Sunnis. If the violence can be contained over the next few weeks, these talks could resume, but forging an agreement will be much harder than before.

Zarqawi's gain?

If the attack and the reactions to it undermine the political process to the extent that the prime minister designate, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is forced to abandon his efforts to form a government, the al-Qaida in Iraq group, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, could gain renewed strength. Mr Zarqawi's group has suffered a number of setbacks in recent months, as many of the Sunni tribal leaders have chosen to work with the central government. The rise in sectarian tension following the Samarra attack could persuade more Iraqi Sunnis to rally to his cause in a bid to exact revenge on the rampaging Shia. Those Iraqi leaders who remain committed to maintaining the country's integrity face a stern challenge to ensure that such an outcome does not happen.

SOURCE: ViewsWire Middle East
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