PRAGUE, 27 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Cars have returned to Baghdad’s streets after a curfew banning the movement of unauthorized vehicles ended early today.
The expiration of the curfew, which already had been extended once, reflects a growing sense that the worst of the widespread sectarian violence that swept the country over the past five days is over.
More Than 200 Dead In Five-Day Spree
The violence has claimed more than 200 lives since the 22 February bombing of a key Shi'ite mosque in Samarra. It has seen retaliatory damaging of Sunni mosques and random shootings of both Shi'ite and Sunni civilians.
Today, groups of Shi'ite militiamen continue to hold some Sunni mosques in Baghdad and tensions remain high.
But calls by religious and political leaders for an end to the unrest appear to be taking effect.
"I call on all believers, Sunnis and Shi'ia -- as did the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him -- to be brothers," said radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Al-Basrah on 26 February.
Al-Sadr has emerged as a pivotal figure since the bombing because many Sunni Arabs see his militia -- the Imam Al-Mahdi Army -- as largely behind retaliatory attacks on their community.
That gives al-Sadr’s calls for restraint considerable weight despite his junior status compared to the other Shi'ite religious and political leaders.
'Cut Off The Head Of The Snake'
Al-Sadr has coupled his calls for calm with repetitions of his longstanding demands for foreign forces to leave Iraq.
He told supporters in Al-Basrah on 26 February that the U.S. military was to blame for the recent violence and urged them “to cut off the head of the snake.”
Mustafa Alani, a regional expert at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, says al-Sadr and other radical leaders look set to emerge from the recent crisis stronger than before.
“There are two things which help radicals to emerge," Alani says. "First is the collapse of the security situation and this is happening in Iraq. There is no major improvement in the security situation. The second thing is the lack of political progress. I think the radical leaders have now more or less a good environment to emerge as military leaders and political leaders. It is a sort of Lebanese scenario again where people who have no value, really, in normal times can have a huge value in this sort of environment.”
Al-Sadr Expands His Influence
Alani says that al-Sadr has been seeking opportunities to become a bigger player both in Iraq and the region.
“Mr. Sadr really has a strategy now to emerge as an Iraqi leader and even a regional leader," Alani says. "[In] his tour of the region before this incident, he went to Saudi Arabia, to Iran, to Syria. So, he now wants to get out of this box of being an insignificant leader.”
Muqtada al-Sadr (AFP file photo)
Many analysts say al-Sadr would have to be taken seriously as a leader if he is indeed able to turn on and turn off retaliatory violence that could lead to civil war. It remains unclear who bombed the Shi'ite Golden Moswque in Samarra, but Iraqi officials blame Sunni extremist groups with ties to Al-Qaeda.
The question now is whether Iraq’s mainstream political leaders can form a much-delayed national-unity government in time to counter increasingly powerful radicals like al-Sadr.
Talks On The New Government Stalled
Leaders of the main Sunni Arab political bloc -- the Iraqi Accordance Front -- told the U.S. daily “The New York Times” that they will return to talks on forming a government, but they declined to say when. The front broke off cooperation shortly after the bombing in protest over the retaliatory attacks on Sunnis.
“The New York Times” reports the front might return to the talks this week, depending on the level of tension in the streets.
Meanwhile, some observers say the days of sectarian violence -- the worst since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003-- is a wake-up call for the international community.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) warns in a report that Iraq is in danger of breaking up along religious, ethnic, and tribal lines.
It says that if the widening fissures in Iraqi society go unchecked, they could bring further “instability and violence to many areas, especially those with mixed populations.”
Things Fall Apart?
The ICG calls, among other things, for the international community to plan for the contingency that Iraq could fall apart.
However, Joost Hiltermann, director of the ICG’s Middle East Project, told Britain’s daily “The Guardian” that “there are still some restraints in place.”
He notes that, so far, “ordinary Iraqis seem to have no desire for either a civil war or the break up of their country.”