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Iraq: Is Baghdad Attack Beginning Of Civil War?

Were the November 23 attacks the first shots in a civil war? (epa) NEW YORK, November 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On November 23, suspected Sunni insurgents detonated five car bombs and fired mortars into the Shi'ite Baghdad district of Al-Sadr City, killing more than 200 and wounding more than 250. The incident was the deadliest single attack in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The bombing and the subsequent retaliatory attacks have increased the fear among Iraqi and U.S. officials, as well as regular Iraqis, that the cycle of violence may have reached a point of no return. Indeed, the sheer size and brutality of the violence and the language used to describe it by Iraqi officials suggests that the security situation is at a tipping point.

Reminiscent Of Samarra

The spectacular nature of the Al-Sadr City attack resembles the February bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, which led to a wave of sectarian violence in Iraq. The object of the attack on the mosque, one of the most revered Shi'ite shrines, was to aggravate sectarian divisions among the Iraqi people. The attack on Al-Sadr City, an overwhelmingly Shi'ite enclave, seems meant to evoke a similar response.
"Their [CIA] view of the battlefield is that it is descending into smaller
and smaller groups fighting over smaller and smaller issues and over
smaller and smaller pieces of territory."

Following the Samarra bombings, the sectarian divisions within Iraq became the focal point of the conflict. On October 24, U.S. General George W. Casey, the commander of the U.S.-led forces in Iraq, said the nature of the Iraq conflict was "evolving from what was an insurgency against us [coalition forces] to a struggle for the division of political and economic power among the Iraqis" and "the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque heightened this." The Al-Sadr City attack can be expected to further aggravate this conflict.

Already, reports of audacious reprisal attacks by alleged Shi'ite militias indicate that the security situation may be worsening. On November 24, Al-Sharqiyah television reported that Shi'ite militiamen attacked a Sunni mosque in the Al-Hurriyah neighborhood of Baghdad and allegedly burned several Sunni Arabs alive. The brutality of these killings suggests that Iraq may be on the brink for an even bloodier phase in the sectarian conflict.

The spike in violence has led to Iraqis increasingly joining both the Shi'ite militias and the Sunni insurgent groups, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on November 28. Some have joined these groups to participate in retaliatory attacks. However, most have joined them for protection, fearing that the Iraqi government is unable to protect them.

Retaliatory Attacks

Before the attacks in Al-Sadr City on November 23, the Health Ministry was also attacked the same day. The ministry building was hit by several mortar rounds, followed by an armed attack on the building by gunmen. Hundreds of ministry workers were trapped as security guards attempted to repel the attackers, believed to be Sunni insurgents.

Health Minister Ali al-Shammari is a member of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's movement, and the ministry is widely believed to be a Sadrist stronghold. Al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, has been widely accused by U.S. and Sunni officials of being responsible for attacks on Sunni Arabs.

Al-Sadr's militia -- future Shi'ite foot soldiers? (epa)

Health Ministry officials were also targeted in a series of attacks prior to the November 23 assault. On November 19, several gunmen, some in military uniforms, abducted Deputy Health Minister Ammar al-Saffar from his Baghdad home. Then, the following day, Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili survived an assassination attempt when gunmen ambushed his convoy in Baghdad.

The series of coordinated attacks against the Health Ministry and its personnel may be an extension of the sectarian conflict. The attacks may have been retaliation for the kidnapping of hundreds of staff and visitors from the Sunni-dominated Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research on November 14. In that attack, witnesses said the gunmen were wearing police commando uniforms and several Iraqi officials indicated that the abductions were the work of Shi'ite militiamen who had infiltrated the Interior Ministry.

Furthermore, the discrepancies concerning the number of abductions between Higher Education Minister Abd Dhiyab al-Ajili and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki underscore the deep sectarian divisions and feelings of suspicion. After most of the hostages were freed, al-Ajili, a Sunni, insisted that dozens of hostages were still being held, and suspended his participation in the government until they were all freed. The Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad downplayed the incident, saying that all but two hostages were freed and accused the media of exaggerating the number of hostages taken.

First Shots In Civil War?

It seems that the Al-Sadr City bombings have taken the violence to a level where it is gaining momentum faster than either U.S. forces or the Iraqi government can respond. As the escalating carnage adds to the impression that al-Maliki's government is weak, the conflict is moving closer to resembling an all-out civil war.

The suggestion that the Iraq conflict is approaching or has become a sectarian civil war is nothing new, but the idea is being discussed with new urgency. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on November 27 that the increasing violence indicated that Iraq was dangerously close to a state of civil war.

Prior to the Al-Sadr City attacks, U.S. officials warned of Iraq's perilous security situation. CIA Director Michael Hayden told the Senate Armed Services Committee on November 15 that the CIA station in Baghdad described the current situation as reverting to a chaotic state where rival factions were increasingly fighting amongst each other.

Although he did not say that it has reached the level of civil war, his description of the conflict fragmenting into smaller local conflicts implies that the situation is worsening. "Their view of the battlefield is that it is descending into smaller and smaller groups fighting over smaller and smaller issues and over smaller and smaller pieces of territory," Hayden said.

The White House has even acknowledged that the recent upsurge in violence was of great concern, but it denied that Iraq was heading toward civil war. Instead, it said, sectarian violence had entered "a new phase."

Reactions To The Samarra Attack

Reactions To The Samarra Attack
Demonstrators in Baghdad on February 23 (epa)

Iraqi religious and government leaders, as well as international officials, condemned the February 22 bomb attack that wrecked the Golden Mosque, a major Shi'ite Muslim shrine in Samarra. Below is a selection of statements on the incident.

"This new ugly crime comes as a warning that there is a conspiracy against the Iraqi people to spark a war among brothers. God willing, we will not allow this.... We must cooperate and work together against this danger, the danger of civil war. This is the fiercest danger because it threatens our unity and our country with a devastating civil war." -- Iraqi President Jalal Talabani

"The timing of this crime indicates that one of its aims is to stall the political process and to hamper the negotiations on the formation of a national-unity government." -- President Talabani

"I announce on this occasion three days of mourning. I hope our heroic people will take more care on this occasion to bolster Islamic unity and protect Islamic brotherhood and Iraqi national brotherhood." -- Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari

"Oh honorable people of Samarra! We should stand as one, united in confronting terrorism.... This assault is an assault on all Muslims." -- Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabur

"They will fail to draw the Iraqi people into civil war as they have failed in the past." -- Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i

"If the security systems are unable to secure necessary protection, the believers are able to do so with the might of God." -- Shi'ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani

"We will not only condemn and protest but we will act against those militants. If the Iraqi government does not do its job to defend the Iraqi people we are ready to do so." -- Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, speaking through spokesman Abdel Hadi al-Darajee

(compiled by Reuters)

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