The country saw two large-scale attacks yesterday that are believed to have been carried out by Sunni insurgents against members of the Shi'ite majority. In one attack, seven people were killed and 23 wounded when a suicide car bomber targeted a Shi'ite mosque in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad. At least 30 people were killed and 20 wounded when a car bomb exploded outside a building used by a Shi'ite organization in the northern town of Tal Afar.
The violence comes following the slayings of at least 10 Shi'ite and Sunni clerics in recent weeks, prompting speculation that they were retaliatory killings. Last week, the head of the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars placed the blame for the deaths of several of the Sunni clerics on the Badr Brigades -- a Shi'ite paramilitary force linked to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).
Is a sectarian war about to start in Iraq?
Alireza Nourizadeh, director of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, says modern Iraq has no history of sectarian war and that it looks very unlikely -- at least in the near future.
"I think it's still too early to talk about a sectarian war. We see signs of this kind of behavior and activities [only] in part of Iraq and [only] among some groups in Iraq. But, you know, in Iraq cooperation and coexistence within religious [groups] is one of the [pillars] of the society, and I think it was only Iraq where we haven't seen sectarian fighting in last two centuries," Nourizadeh said.
Nourizadeh says that Iraq differs from Lebanon, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in that it has traditionally served as an example of peaceful coexistence between different religious communities.
Nourizadeh says there is no doubt that sectarian violence was imported into the country by extremists such as Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi -- the top Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq. Nourizadeh says al-Zarqawi, a Sunni, has officially declared Shi'ites infidels and calls for his supporters to kill them. But he adds that al-Zarqawi is essentially the only prominent voice calling for such drastic measures.
"As a matter of fact, none of the Shi'a and Sunni legal groups which are active in Iraq are involved in killings. It's only the terrorists that [are] using this environment, using this sort of feeling in order to carry certain operations," Nourizadeh says.
Nourizadeh says there is no evidence that the Badr Brigades have been involved in killing Sunni clerics. Analysts also say that it looks likely that militants masqueraded as Shi'ites when attacking Sunni clerics in order to incite violence.
Iraq's most revered Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has urged his followers not to retaliate against Sunnis. And, according to Nourizadeh, radical anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr recently sent a delegation to meet with Sunni leaders in an attempt to end tensions.
Jeremy Binnie, a Middle East analyst with "Jane's Sentinel" in London, says there are positive signs.
"I think both sides realize that to go down this path can be troublesome for everyone. So now, we see signs that there will be more Sunni involvement in the government. And, you know, clerics coming up and saying Iraqis should stop killing Iraqis, full stop," Binnie says.
Binne says that although he thinks a sectarian war can be avoided, tensions between the two communities will persist because of the shift of power from the Sunni minority that has traditionally ruled the country to the Shi'ites. The analyst says it will take time to heal old wounds and to start anew.
Despite making up only one-fifth of Iraq's population, Sunni Arabs had dominated Iraq since the country became independent in 1932. Saddam Hussein's regime brutally repressed the Shi'ites, who make up 60 percent of the country's 25 million people.
After the U.S. invasion in March 2003, Sunnis began to lose their grip on power. Most Sunnis boycotted parliamentary elections at the end of January. As a result, just 17 of the 275 members of parliament are Sunnis, and Sunnis complain that they are under-represented in the government set up by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, who is a Shi'ite.