Jonathan Steele, Robert Tait & Julian Borger / Guardian & Ellen Knickmeyer / Washington Post – 2006-11-25 23:11:24
Iraqi Coalition on Brink of Collapse as Country Descends towards Civil War
Jonathan Steele, Robert Tait & Julian Borger / Guardian
IRBIL, TEHRAN & WASHINGTON (November 25, 2006) — Iraq’s precarious government was teetering yesterday as a powerful Shia militia leader threatened to withdraw support after sectarian killings reached a new peak and the country lurched closer to all-out civil war.
The prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, was forced to choose between his US protectors and an essential pillar of his coalition, when Moqtada al-Sadr declared his intention to walk out, potentially bringing down the government, if Mr Maliki went ahead with a meeting with President George Bush in Jordan next week.
Mr Maliki, a moderate Shia, faced the dilemma as the cycle of killings reached new levels of savagery. Yesterday, there were reports that at least 60 Sunnis had died in revenge killings and suicide attacks, including one episode in which Shia militiamen seized six Sunnis as they were leaving a mosque, doused them with petrol and set them alight, while soldiers reportedly stood by. In another attack, gunmen burned mosques and killed more than 30 Sunnis in Baghdad’s Hurriya district before US forces intervened.
The violence added new urgency to a regional summit in Tehran this weekend on Iraq’s fate. Iraq’s neighbours, particularly Syria and Iran, have been accused of pulling strings in the Iraqi chaos, and Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is today due to play host to his Iraqi counterpart, Jalal Talabani.
The Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, was invited but reports from Damascus suggested he would not attend. Syria restored diplomatic relations with Iraq this week after a 24-year gap.
In a reflection of the importance Iran attaches to the summit, Mr Talabani is also expected to meet the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the ultimate say on foreign policy.
Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, predicted that Mr Talabani’s visit would produce “important agreements”. He described the violence and the US-British occupying forces as “two sides of the same coin” adding: “The two issues should be taken into consideration jointly and a comprehensive solution found.”
Observers in Tehran said the government there hoped to use its summit as an overture to Washington. “The Iranian leadership are trying to use Mr Talabani, who has a special role inside Iraq and has never criticised Iran, as a mediator between Tehran and Washington,” said Saeed Leylaz, a political analyst. “Mr Ahmadinejad is hopeful that he can attract America’s attention through Iraq.”
One unknown quantity at the summit will be how much sway the Ahmadinejad government has over Mr Sadr, who visited Tehran last January and met senior Iranian officials, including the country’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani.
The broader question, growing more urgent each day, is whether anyone can now control the cycle of violence. Thursday was the most deadly day for Iraqi civilians, and morgue statistics showed that the past month has been the bloodiest since the 2003 invasion, according to the UN, with 3,709 civilians killed.
Since taking office, Mr Maliki has been under constant US pressure to disarm the Mahdi army and other Shia militias, while remaining beholden to them to stay in power. The Sadr party demanded yesterday that Mr Maliki “specify the nature of its relations with the occupation forces”, demanded a timetable for a US withdrawal, and issued its ultimatum over the scheduled Bush-Maliki meeting in Jordan next Wednesday and Thursday.
“There is no reason to meet the criminal who is behind the terrorism,” said Faleh Hassan Shansal, a Sadrist MP.
The White House appeared determined that the meeting should go ahead, after President Bush attends a Nato summit in Latvia on Tuesday. “The United States is committed to helping the Iraqis and President Bush and prime minister Maliki will meet next week to discuss the security situation in Iraq,” said Scott Stanzel, a deputy White House spokesman.
Mr Sadr’s people have six cabinet seats and 30 members in the 275-member parliament. Their vote in the intra-Shia haggling helped to select Mr Maliki as prime minister over other Shia rivals.
Mr Sadr used Friday prayers in the main mosque in Kufa, his headquarters in the Shia heartland south of Baghdad, to focus on Sunni leaders. He urged them to help end the slide into sectarian civil war.
Appealing directly to Harith al-Dari, the leader of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a radical Sunni organisation which has always denounced the US occupation, Mr Sadr told the congregation: “He has to release a fatwa prohibiting the killing of Shias so as to preserve Muslim blood and must prohibit membership of al-Qaida or any other organisation that has made Shias their enemies.”
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006.
Nearby Nations Dreading Iraq’s Disintegration
Ellen Knickmeyer / Washington Post
BAGHDAD, Iraq (November 23, 2006) — While American commanders have suggested that civil war is possible in Iraq, many leaders, experts and ordinary people in Baghdad and around the Middle East say it is already under way, and that the real worry ahead is that the conflict will destroy the flimsy Iraqi state and draw in surrounding countries.
Whether the US military departs Iraq sooner or later, the United States will be hard-pressed to leave behind a country that does not threaten US interests and regional peace, according to American and Arab analysts and political observers.
“We’re not talking about just a full-scale civil war. This would be a failed-state situation with fighting among various groups” growing into regional conflict, Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group, said by telephone from Amman, Jordan.
“The war will be over Iraq, over its dead body,” Hiltermann said.
“All indications point to a current state of civil war and the disintegration of the Iraqi state,” Nawaf Obaid, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adviser to the Saudi government, said earlier this month at a conference in Washington on US-Arab relations.
As Iraq’s neighbors grapple with the various ideas put forward for solving the country’s problems, they uniformly shudder at one proposal: dividing Iraq into separate regions for Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and then speeding the withdrawal of US forces.
“To envision that you can divide Iraq into three parts is to envision `ethnic cleansing’ on a massive scale, sectarian killing on a massive scale,” Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, said Oct. 30 at a conference in Washington. “Since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited.”
“When the ethnic-religious break occurs in one country, it will not fail to occur elsewhere, too,” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Germany’s Der Spiegel newsweekly recently. “It would be as it was at the end of the Soviet Union, only much worse. Large wars, small wars — no one will be able to get a grip on the consequences.”
In an analysis published last month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Obaid said sectarian conflicts could make Iraq a battleground for the region.
Obaid described widespread interference by Iranian security forces within Iraq. He urged Saudi Arabia, which is building a 560-mile wall on its border with Iraq, to warn Iran “that if these activities are not checked,” Saudi Arabia “will be forced to consider a similar overt and covert program of its own.”
In Damascus, a Syrian analyst close to the Assad government warned that other countries would intervene if Iraq descended into full-scale civil war. “Iran will get involved, Turkey will get involved, Saudi Arabia, Syria,” said the analyst, who spoke on condition he not be identified further.
“Regional war is very much a possibility,” said Hiltermann, the analyst for the International Crisis Group. Iraq’s neighbors “are hysterical about Iranian strategic advances in the region,” he said.
US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad last month ranked Syria and Iran with Al-Qaida in Iraq, one of the country’s principal Sunni Arab insurgent groups, in terms of destabilizing influences in Iraq. Despite that assessment, the United States has not held substantive talks with Syria regarding Iraq since 2004 or with Iran since the war began in 2003.
Diplomats and analysts increasingly are urging the Bush administration to reach out to both countries as part of a regional approach to quelling Iraq’s troubles. Former Secretary of State James Baker, leader of a panel preparing a set of policy recommendations for the Bush administration, already has endorsed the idea of seeking the help of Iran and Syria.
“The thing is, because Iran and Syria both have spoiling power in Iraq, if you could neutralize them,” it would ease some of the many pressures within Iraq, Hiltermann said. But he said the two countries may demand a mighty trade-off: for Syria, U.S. help with its biggest stated aim, winning back the Golan Heights from Israel; for Iran, U.S. compromise over its nuclear program.
Hiltermann acknowledged the difficulty. “I’m saying it’s required,” he said. “I’m not saying it’s possible.”
In Baghdad’s Shiite stronghold of Sadr City late last month, aides to one of the country’s leading Shiite clerics held a rally to urge followers to bide their time until the American forces leave the country. The rally was called by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, a strongly anti-occupation figure who is one of the leaders in the current Shiite-led government and one likely claimant to power should the Americans withdraw.
“Will America win?” a speaker in a brown turban demanded before the more than 1,000 protesters, as a brewing storm whirled dirt and trash and pelted demonstrators with drops of cold rain. Loudspeakers shot his question back across the square.
The men thrust their fists in the air, shouting their answer out to a grim, gray sky: “No, no! America will not win!”
Between 2 percent and 5 percent of Iraq’s 27 million people have been killed, wounded or uprooted since the Americans invaded in 2003, calculates Anthony Cordesman of the Center for International and Strategic Studies.
“This is civil war,” he said.
Since midsummer, Shiite militias, Sunni insurgent groups, ad-hoc Sunni self-defense groups and tribes have accelerated campaigns of sectarian cleansing that are forcing countless thousands of Shiites and Sunnis in Baghdad to seek safety among their own kind.
Whole towns north and south of Baghdad are locked in the same sectarian struggle, among them the central Shiite city of Balad, still under siege by gunmen from surrounding Sunni towns after a bloody spate of sectarian massacres last month.
Even outside the center of sectarian strife in the central region of the country, Shiite factions battle each other in the south, Sunni tribes and factions clash in the west. Across Iraq, the criminal gangs that emerged with the collapse of law and order rule patches of turf as mini-warlords.
Since the war began, 1.6 million Iraqis have sought refuge in neighboring countries; at least 231,530 people have been displaced inside Iraq since February, when Shiite-Sunni violence exploded with the bombing of a Shiite shrine in the northern city of Samarra, according to figures from the United Nations and the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration.
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