BEIRUT, LEBANON -- The signs of sectarian warfare are everywhere in Iraq these days: clerics assassinated outside their mosques, dozens of execution victims turning up in ditches and car bombers inflicting heavy casualties on the country's Shia Muslim majority.
Nearly four months after Iraq's election, when millions of Iraqis defied insurgent threats by voting for a new parliament, sectarian violence now threatens to drag the country into civil war. Most victims so far have been Shias targeted by Sunni insurgents. But the recent discoveries throughout Iraq of more than 50 bodies - men from both sects, apparently abducted and executed - highlight a new problem: a wave of retaliatory killings between Sunnis and Shias.
It is the worst-case scenario that many Iraqis have feared since the insurgency's early days: that persistent attacks against the Shia community would drive Shia militias to seek revenge against Sunni civilians, prompting a new cycle of violence that would destroy any hope of dampening the insurgency and bringing Sunnis into the political process.
We are at a moment of extreme danger. There is a level of sectarian tension that is unrivaled in Iraq's modern history.
Hazem Shammari, a political science professor at Baghdad University
"A civil war would destroy the democratic program in Iraq," said Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitta, a respected Shia cleric in Baghdad. "The insurgents want to ignite a civil war with mass killings of Shia civilians, which would produce revenge attacks. The question now is whether the Shia leadership can keep the situation under control."
For more than a year, insurgents have targeted Shia mosques, neighborhoods and religious ceremonies across Iraq. They also have relentlessly attacked the Shia-dominated police and army. While there is no exact death toll, several thousand Shias are believed to have been killed by insurgent bombings and other attacks.
Iraq's most revered Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has urged his followers not to retaliate against Sunnis. But as attacks on Shia civilians mount, Shia militias and vigilantes appear to be fighting back with tit-for-tat killings.
"We are at a moment of extreme danger," said Hazem Shammari, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "There is a level of sectarian tension that is unrivaled in Iraq's modern history."
It is unclear how long al-Sistani and Shia politicians will be able to restrain young Shia militants. One such force is the militia loyal to renegade Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, which fought extended battles twice last year with U.S. forces. Al-Sadr's militia surrendered most of its weapons to the Iraqi government, but its members are still difficult to control because they do not look to senior clerics such as al-Sistani for guidance.
Iraqi leaders warn that a sectarian conflict would fulfill the goals of Islamic militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. They point to a January 2004 letter purportedly written by al-Zarqawi in which he appealed to Osama bin Laden for help in setting off a civil war through a campaign of bombings against Shia institutions.
Coffin maker Alla Ali carries a newly made coffin at his father's shop in Baghdad May 18, 2005. Escalating violence in Iraq is fuelling fears Iraq may be moving towards civil war. REUTERS/Akram Saleh)
"So the solution, and only God knows, is that we need to bring the Shia into the battle," the letter said. "It is the only way to prolong the duration of the fight between the infidels and us."
The Sunni-Shia struggle in Iraq is largely political. Sunni Arabs had dominated the country since its independence in 1932, despite making up only a fifth of Iraq's population. Saddam Hussein's regime brutally repressed the Shias, who constitute 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 the Jan. 30 election, either as a protest or for fear of the insurgents. Only 17 of the 275 members of parliament are Sunnis, and Sunnis complain that they are also under-represented in the government set up by Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari. Like parliament, Jaafari's cabinet is dominated by the two blocs that swept January's election: Shia religious groups and Kurdish secular parties.
Many Iraqis argue that the best way to avert sectarian fighting is to bring more Sunnis into politics, and especially the drafting of Iraq's new constitution. "The terrorists are raising the specter of Sunni disenfranchisement," said Sheik Hussein Shaalan, a member of parliament and leader of a Shia tribe in southern Iraq. "We must involve more Sunnis in the process."
Among the recent incidents of sectarian violence and apparent retaliation:
- Ten clerics, both Sunnis and Shias, have been killed over the past two weeks in and around Baghdad. Several of the clerics were abducted, and their bullet-riddled bodies were discovered days later.
- The corpses of 14 blindfolded and bound men were found May 8 in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, a Shia area dominated by al-Sadr's supporters. They had been shot execution-style and were believed to be members of a Sunni tribe abducted outside Baghdad.
- A week later, 13 bodies were discovered in a garbage-strewn lot in the same area. Those victims, who were also bound and executed, had the type of long beards typically worn by devout Sunnis.
- On May 14, corpses of 10 Iraqi soldiers, all Shias, were discovered in Ramadi, a Sunni-dominated city in western Iraq that has been a center of the insurgency.
- On May 15, 11 more bodies were found on an abandoned chicken farm south of Baghdad. Iraqi officials said they appeared to be Shia pilgrims who were ambushed by Sunni insurgents on the road between Baghdad and the Shia holy city of Najaf.
Against this backdrop of violence, al-Sadr appeared publicly last week for the first time in nine months. He accused the United States of inciting sectarian hatred and called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces. He also urged his followers not to retaliate against Sunnis.
"All Sunnis cannot be held responsible for the terrorist deeds of the nawaseb," al-Sadr told reporters, referring to Sunni militants inspired by the Wahhabi brand of Islam dominant in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Some clerics say that, despite al-Sadr's denials, his militia, the Mahdi Army, has been battling Sunni militants for weeks. "There is an open conflict between the Mahdi Army and the Wahhabis," Ghitta said. "There are killings and acts of retaliation."
Sunni leaders have accused another Shia force of carrying out revenge killings: the Badr Organization, a militia allied with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the Shia parties that dominates the new government.
"It is the Badr Organization which is responsible for these killings," Harith al-Dhari, a senior leader of the Muslim Scholars Association, a Sunni group, told reporters in Baghdad last week. "I take responsibility for what I am saying."
Al-Dhari accused the Badr militia of executing dozens of Sunni civilians and at least two clerics over the past month. He also charged that Iraqi security forces were complicit in the killings.
Al-Dhari's and other Sunni groups have called for the resignation of the new interior minister, Bayan Jabr, a Shia who is a longtime leader of the Supreme Council and its Badr militia. Sunni groups organized a three-day "prayer strike," in which mosques were to be closed through today, to protest the killings and alleged government involvement in them.
Jabr denied the accusations and has refused to step down. As interior minister, Jabr oversees the Iraqi police and other internal security forces.
The man who so far has kept a lid on widespread Shia retaliation is al-Sistani. But he has a difficult balancing act: He is trying to influence the new government in its drafting of a constitution, while also appearing to stay out of daily politics. The ayatollah recently urged Jaafari to include more Sunnis on the 55-member committee that is writing the constitution.
By becoming so heavily involved in the new government, some clerics say, al-Sistani risks losing some of his authority and ability to keep the Shia masses from retaliating.
"The Shia religious leadership has entered the political game," Ghitta said. "Before becoming a political actor, it had more legitimacy....The danger now is that some young Shias will no longer heed al-Sistani's call to stay calm."
A wave of violence
Attacks in Iraq this year have overwhelmingly targeted Shias, although
violence of recent weeks indicates Shias are beginning to retaliate.
Tuesday (May 17): Two car bombs explode minutes apart in a Shia section of Baghdad, killing nine soldiers, wounding five others and causing an unspecified number of civilian casualties.
May 15: A Shia cleric, Sheik Qassem al-Azawee, is assassinated in Najaf.
May 12: A car bomb explodes near a busy marketplace in a mainly Shia district of eastern Baghdad, killing at least 10 people and injuring 20.
Feb. 19: Suicide car bomb explodes outside a mosque in Balad, northeast of Baghdad; 13 die and 40 are injured.
Jan. 21: Car bomb explodes outside a Shia mosque in Baghdad packed with worshipers. Suicide driver blows up an ambulance at the wedding of a Shia couple south of the capital. At least 21 die and dozens are wounded.
Jan. 13: Suicide car bomber attacks a Shia community center in Khan Bani Saad, killing three and wounding eight.
Jan. 12: Shia cleric is shot dead in the town of Salman Pak as he returns home from a mosque. His son and four bodyguards are also killed.
Jan. 6: Bodies of 18 young Shias are found near the northern city of Mosul. The men were taken off a bus and executed in December while seeking work at a U.S. base.
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.