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On the road to chaos

Print edition : Jun 03, 2005 T+T-

A full-fledged civil war, with the Shias and the Kurds pitted against the Sunnis, seems to be a possibility in Iraq as violence engulfs the country following the formation of the new Shia-led national government.

ATUL ANEJA in Manama

A WHIRLWIND of violence hit Iraq immediately after the new Prime Minister, Ibrahim Jaafari, a Shia, announced a partial Cabinet line-up on April 28, and it is still raging. Suicide bombers, some driving cars laden with explosives, killed more than 300 persons and wounded hundreds more in various parts of the country in just over a week. Sunni groups, which have led the armed Iraqi resistance but have been edged out of mainstream politics following the January 30 elections, have been blamed for the attacks.

There is a method in the new phase of violence, which reflects the rapidly changing power equations in the country's several religious and ethnic groups. Shias and ethnic Kurds have borne the brunt of the attacks. Sidelined for centuries, these communities have now forged a political alliance to dominate the new government, marginalising Sunnis, who have traditionally ruled Iraq.

Barely two days after the broad contours of the Jaafari government emerged, a suicide bomber in the city of Talafar exploded his car inside a tent packed with mourners grieving a Kurdish leader. Nearly 30 persons were killed and 50 were wounded. Kurdish officials said gunmen blocked the path of ambulances taking victims to hospital, resulting in gunfights on the streets.

Three days later, a suicide bomber on foot struck outside the office of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, where would-be police recruits were queuing up. Around 60 persons were killed, making it the worst attack since the February 28 killing of 110 persons outside a clinic in the city of Hilla.

Relations between Kurds and Sunni Arabs have always been strained, especially in Kirkuk. The Kurds have laid claims over the northern Iraqi oil city - a demand that could, if fulfilled, result in a huge financial bonanza because of oil sales. Sunni Arabs, who were settled in the area in large numbers by the Baathist government of former President Saddam Hussein, have rejected Kurds' attempts to monopolise their hold over Kirkuk. The violence is likely to heighten the bitterness between the two communities and could encourage the Kurds to consider the secession option seriously.

Sunni groups known to be close to the resistance have not reacted enthusiastically to the new Shia-led government of Jaafari. "We don't believe that the government will solve the problems of an occupied Iraq. We don't trust the government," Harith al-Dhari, head of the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), a powerful Sunni organisation, was quoted as saying.

The growing hostility between Sunnis and Shias is attributed partly to the contrasting perceptions both sides have about rehabilitating members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Sunnis, who formed the core of Saddam Hussein's government, are generally in favour of rehabilitating ex-Baathists. But this is anathema to the majority of Shia leaders, who fled Iraq to escape possible persecution under the Saddam Hussein regime.

Shia organisations such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) were born in Iran following bitter confrontations with Saddam Hussein. Consequently, these groups have instinctively resented accommodation of former Baathists in the new establishment. Part of the lengthy negotiations between Shias and Sunnis after the January 30 elections revolved around choosing the right Sunni candidates for induction into the new government. A compromise of sorts was reached, with Sunnis getting the Defence Ministry, apart from less important portfolios.

However, it is unlikely that resistance groups or the AMS will accept the decision and scale down the guerilla war. Latent Sunni-Shia tensions, which have deepened during the two years of United States-led occupation of the country, are now out of the closet. On May 4, Shia and Sunni students clashed on the Baghdad University campus after a Shia student leader was killed. Gunmen shot dead 24-year-old Masar Sarhan as he got out of a car outside the apartment block where he lived. Earlier, Sarhan had invited students for celebrations on the campus following the appointment of the Jaafari government. Calls for revenge followed the killing, leading to unrest, which could spread to other campuses.

Sunni-Shia violence appears to have become a regular feature in some of Iraq's sensitive areas. For instance, in the south Baghdad neighbourhood of Doura, Shias have been targeted routinely. In Suwaira, security forces recovered 40 bodies from a river. Most of the victims were Shias, and grieving family members blamed Sunni fighters for the deaths. On May 6, the Shia-dominated town was rocked by violence again when a car bomb killed 31 persons in a marketplace. A little known Sunni group, Jamaat Jund al-Sahaba, claimed responsibility for the strike. In March the same group attacked a Shia mosque in northern Iraq. Piqued by the regularity of the attacks, Najaf's new Governor called upon Sunni clerics to rein in their followers and warned that in case there was no change, Shias would retaliate.

The emergence of a spate of armed militias and groups, including those that are controlled by the U.S. and are operating from Baghdad's high-security Green Zone, has added an explosive dimension to Iraq's sectarian politics. Among them, the 10,000-men strong Special Police Commandos has acquired a high profile. Led by Adnan Thavit al-Samarrai, a loyalist of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, the group is known for exercising the "Salvador Option" - the policy of targeted assassinations, practised by U.S.-trained death squads in El Salvador during the country's civil war in the 1980s. In 1996, he was part of a group that attempted a coup against Saddam Hussein. Prior to his present appointment, the chain-smoking Thavit was the "security adviser" in charge of the General Security Directorate, an organisation packed with intelligence agents who once served the Saddam Hussein government. That the U.S. considers the survival of this organisation vital for the protection of its interests is evident from the fact that U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rushed to Baghdad in order to persuade the new government against dismantling it. Two other militias under Allawi are the Muthana Brigade and the Defenders of Khadamiya. While Allawi is not part of the new government, he is likely to play his part as a powerful U.S.-backed power centre.

The U.S. military is known to have cultivated some armed groups directly. For instance, U.S. marines have nurtured the Iraqi Freedom Guard and the Freedom Fighters. These militias include a large number of Shias from the south and have been deployed against Sunnis in the Anbar province, the hub of the resistance. In Ramadi, the capital of the Anbar province, checkpoints are being increasingly manned by members of the Defenders of Baghdad, an ad hoc Shia militia group. Their presence is deeply resented, as is the deployment of a non-local force of 1,500 men, which includes a battalion of the Special Police Commandos. The Washington Post reported that in mid-April about 500 residents marched to a checkpoint manned by commandos and U.S. soldiers on the city's eastern edge to complain about the conduct of outside forces.

The U.S. is also dealing with the Peshmerga - a Kurdish force that has its strongholds in northern Iraq. The Peshmerga's close association with the Americans has already pitted it against the Sunnis. Kurdish-Sunni relations were damaged earlier when Peshmerga members fought alongside U.S. troops in the Sunni stronghold of Falluja in 2004.

Outside the U.S. fold, the Mehdi Army loyal to Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr has emerged as a powerful force that controls the streets in several Shia centres and helps provide de facto local administration. Shia militias now control the strategic southern city of Basra, which is situated close to Iraq's southern oilfields. The Badr Brigades, the SCIRI's armed wing, too has a powerful presence in Iraq. Leaders of the Badr Brigades lived in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein's rule and were funded by the Islamic republic until the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Iraq's new President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, offered a highly controversial "solution" to restore calm. In an interview with the BBC, Talabani proposed that the 80,000-strong Peshmerga and the Badr Brigades should be allowed to counter the resistance jointly. Talabani said it would take "years" to defeat the guerillas if the government waited for official security forces to develop. The move to let the militias tackle the violence, which could be interpreted as a government-sanctioned general assault on the Sunni community, could throw Iraq into a tailspin. With the emergence of a multiplicity of power centres, many of which are directly or indirectly controlled by the U.S., Iraq is beset with a variety of volatile forces, which, if unleashed, could engulf the country in a long-drawn-out civil war.