Iraq’s Cycle of Violence

Sabrina Tavernise reports that the violence following Tuesday’s mosque attacks has stunned Iraqis and radically changed the public mood there.

After a day of violence so raw and so personal, Iraqis woke on Thursday morning to a tense new world in which, it seemed, anything was possible. The violence on Wednesday was the closest Iraq had come to civil war, and Iraqis were stunned. In Al Amin, a neighborhood in southeast Baghdad, a Shiite man said he had watched gunmen set a house on fire. It was identified as the residence of Sunni Arab militants, said the man, Abu Abbas, though no one seemed to know for sure who they were.

“We all were shocked,” said Abu Abbas, a vegetable seller, standing near crates of oranges and tomatoes. “We saw it burning. We called the fire department. We didn’t know how to behave. Chaos was everywhere.” Of the seven men inside, at least three were brought out dead, said Abu Abbas, 32, who said it would be dangerous to give more than his Iraqi nickname.

Everything felt different on Thursday morning. A Shiite newspaper, Al Bayyna al Jadidah, used unusually angry language in a front-page editorial: “It’s time to declare war against anyone who tries to conspire against us, who slaughters us every day. It is time to go to the streets and fight those outlaws.”

Many Iraqis, including Abu Abbas, blamed the militia loyal to the Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, for the attacks. The fighters are known as the Mahdi Army but they are little more than large groups of poor Shiites with guns. Indeed, the neighborhoods in eastern Baghdad on the edges of the vast Shiite slum, Sadr City, where most of those fighters live, seem to have been hit the hardest.

One good sign, albeit anecdotal:

Still, the neighborhood itself did not divide along sectarian lines: Shiite residents also condemned Wednesday’s assaults. Neighborhoods all over Baghdad reported similar camaraderie. “As a Shiite, I do not accept this,” said Saadiya Salim, a 50-year-old homemaker. “These acts will lead to violence, because the Sunnis will attack” Shiite mosques.

The U.S. and Iraqi governments are putting their best face on the situation while trying to quell the violence:

Iraqi leaders attempted Thursday to stop sectarian violence that has escalated since a revered Shiite shrine was bombed in Samarra, prompting widespread reprisals against Sunnis. The United States joined Iraqi leaders in urging calm, and despite Sunni Arabs boycotting talks on a new unity government, an American envoy said he is confident the tensions will pass.

A curfew was imposed Thursday evening in Baghdad and three surrounding provinces. Under the curfew, which began at 6 p.m., no one is allowed in the streets. The curfew, which bars people from entering the streets, could stir even more controversy because it will remain in effect through Friday’s noon Muslim prayers — the most sacred prayers of the week for followers.

Cori Dauber says that, “The situation in Iraq is just flat bad, and there’s no point trying to sugar coat any of it.” Still, she compares Tavernise’s “hyper-descriptive” piece above to a calmer piece by WaPo’s Bradley Graham.

The U.S. military, which has lowered force levels in Iraq by more than 20,000 troops since December’s elections to about 133,000 now, reported no moves toward a possible new buildup. Instead, several U.S. military officers said, the plan is to rely on Iraq’s fledgling security forces to take the lead in attempting to contain the strife.

Washington officials found some encouragement in what they said appeared to be a drop in attacks yesterday from the day before, when the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra sparked a wave of retaliatory attacks that left dozens of Sunni mosques in ruins and scores of people dead.

Still, more than 100 new deaths were reported as a result of clashes between rival Muslim sects, and U.S. officials here acknowledged that the situation remains volatile in the next few days, particularly with large demonstrations scheduled. “This isn’t a bump in the road, it’s a pothole,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a senior policy and planning officer with U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in the region. “And we’ll find out if the shock absorbers in the Iraqi society will hold or whether this will crack the frame.”

Although worried by the prospect that the latest fighting could mark a major turning point toward all-out civil war, administration officials sought to convey concern without appearing to panic. “On the one hand, we don’t want to give the impression that we’re not focused on this,” a senior State Department official said. “On the other hand, we don’t want to play up the ‘we’re on the brink of civil war argument.’ We think we should take a deep breath, do all the things we’re doing, and see how this thing shakes out in the next few days.”

Dauber concludes, correctly I think, “this marks the distance the country has come since 2004. There would have been absolutely no way, during that earlier crisis, for the American military to step back and let Iraqi forces take the lead in restoring order.” Of course, it’s far from certain that they will in fact restore order.

Robert Mayer
believes the party who “stands to benefit” from the attack and the resulting violence is “Zarqawi, who is using the attack as a last ditch effort to prevent the forming of a new government. He is looking to divide the country after to has come so close to being united.”

NRO’s James Robbins agrees.

The attack was most probably perpetrated by al Qaeda, which has been trying to foment civil strife in Iraq for some time, and declared open war on the Shiites last year. They have mounted numerous provocative attacks on Shia and Kurdish targets, to no noticeable effect. This strike was much more audacious; the (previously) golden-domed shrine is an ancient and revered structure, and the tombs within are holy both to Shiites and Sunnis, though more so to the former. The initial retaliatory attacks on Sunni mosques must have pleased Zarqawi; if taking down this site did not start the civil war, nothing would.

So the foreign fighters must have been stunned when Shiite and Sunni leaders rushed out statements saying they knew that the takfiri (i.e., those who accuse other Muslims of being infidels, a code word in this context for the foreign extremists) were behind the attack, and they would not let this act of brutality divide Iraq. […] Sunni groups followed suit. The Association of Muslim Scholars posted a statement condemning this “suspicious criminal act that seeks to stir sedition and unrest” and the “perpetrators and masterminds of this act, who wish to harm Iraq and divide its people for the sake of their personal agendas and the interests and schemes of foreign powers in this ravaged country.” Likewise the National Dialogue Council denounced the attempt to “divide Iraq and light the flame of civil war between its sons,” and the Iraqi Islamic Party called for self restraint, even as its offices were attacked, saying that in a civil war there would be no winner.

[…]

Despite panicky headlines to the contrary, it is not in any group’s interest to wage full scale civil war in Iraq. The Shiites have power without it; the Sunnis could not win it; and the Kurds will sit it out either way and keep patiently building their homeland. So this senseless act of violence against the final resting place of two of the most respected figures of the Muslim religion only proves to the Islamic world that al Qaeda and its allies are true heretics who care nothing for the faith and are out for power by any means at their disposal. Cartoons about Mohammed pale in comparison to this atrocity. I look forward to the mass demonstrations against al Qaeda throughout the Muslim world — though somehow I doubt we’ll see many.

Charlie Munn adds,

Civil war in Iraq would be disastrous for the Sunnis, and I think they know it. The Shiite community is going to be the majority in the new Iraqi democracy, and the Sunni population lives in a landlocked, resource poor area of Iraq. A Sunnistan is not a viable option for them. This shows that Al Qaeda is not about religion, it is about control and power.

Indeed. While I agree that civil war benefits no one but the terrorists, that does not preclude it happening. Violence has a way of feeding itself and getting out of hand. The next couple of days are critical. If Iraqi security forces, in cooperation with religious and other leaders, don’t restore order very soon, it may be impossible to do it without full scale war.

Bill Roggio, who offers a detailed and interesting list of “lead indicators a full scale civil war,” agrees, noting,

Iraq has yet to encounter any of the problems stated above. The Sunni led Iraqi Accordance Front has suspended talks to form a government, but have not withdrawn from the political process. The Iraqi Security Forces have taken appropriate measures and suspended all leaves, but there are no indications they are cooperating with militias or abetting the violence in any way. There have been both encouraging statements by the Shiite and Sunni leaders. There also have been some irresponsible statements from the politicians on all sides, but this can be understood as tensions are running high. The Shiites are devastated by the destruction of the Golden Mosque and the Sunnis are horrified at the retaliation attacks. What is critical is what is said and done by these politicians in the next few days and weeks.

Richard Hernandez contends that, “while the situation threatens to slide into civil war it’s not there yet.”

If Bill Roggio was right in thinking that the al-Qaeda are behind this attack in order to provoke civil war (see previous post), they have really started on this new tactic a year and half too late. They wasted their time trying to defeat the US Armed Forces and that didn’t work so well. Unfortunately the time they wasted has also provided the time for the Coalition Forces to train up hundreds of Iraqi battalions, establish a shaky but nevertheless functional national leadership core (as events are proving) and weakened Sadr. In war as in other things, timing is important.

Healing Iraq’s Zeyad, however, is depressed.

What kind of nation are we? What kind of nation kills its intellectuals and academics, its doctors and healers, its women and children, its clerics and preachers? What kind of nation blows up churches and mosques, hotels and schools, funerals and weddings? We have left nothing sacred. Yet we have the insolence to accuse others of offending us, of vilifying us. I announce today that we have proved ourselves worthy of that vilification. Ten years ago, I denounced religion and disavowed Islam. I do not want to be forced to disavow my country and nation today, but with every new day, I’m afraid I am getting closer to it.

That’s just one man’s view, of course, and in the midst of a sorry situation. Still, it points to a major underlying issue: the sense of Iraqi nationhood. One of the things that we have going for us in this ambitious endeavor to convert Iraq from a despotic state to a democratic one is that, even though there is a history of tribal and sectarian enmity and unlike many places whose borders were drawn by Western colonialists, there is a strong sense of identity as “Iraqis.” Mass murder sprees can undermine that, quickly.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Not good. My understanding, from an NPR report this morning, is that U.S. and Iraqi Shiite troops were guarding the shrine at the time. How sabateurs were able to pull this off despite that safeguard is unclear. _____________ Related: Iraq’s Cycle of Violence (February 24, 2006) Al-Askariya Shrine Attack Has Iraq on Brink of Civil War (February 23, 2006) Iranian President: U.S. and Israel Destroyed Iraqi Shrine (February 23, 2006) Explosion Destroys Dome of Iraq Shiite Shrine

  2. G A PHILLIPS says:

    what kind of religion is Islam what kind of religion kills its intellectuals and academics, its doctors and healers, its woman and children, its cleric and preachers? what kind religion blows up churches and Mosques, hotels and schools, funerals and weddings? I’ll tell you, the same kind that always does, same as atheism=Communism, evolutionism=fascist-socialism, Catholic church=another false prophet’s(I mean church doctrine) rewriting of gods laws and commandments. Am I wrong? In that I have changed this man’s words I am sorry, but they to seem have giving me a new insight into how I think and the depression I used to feel before I found the peace and comfort that the one true God has given me though the life and death of his Son. please remember what our own horrible civil war gave to us, some times it is what it takes for freedom to come into full bloom.

  3. biwah says:

    A Sunni politician suggested that Iran was responsible for the Golden Dome bombing. Indeed, these are ends sought by Iran. The bombing was a direct attack on Sadr and his Mahdi Army, the most lethal Shiite faction in Iraq. Although the mosque had been guarded by Sunnis in Sunni territory, Sadr counseled restraint against the Sunnis, instead redirecting the backlash against the U.S.

    Sure, Sadr doesn’t like the U.S., but why on earth would he hold back on the Sunnis, if he really thought they were responsible? It stinks.

  4. DC Loser says:

    Sadr has been quietly building his influence with the Iraqi government and is acting as a go between for the Shiites and the government. He has a vested interested in not seeing a civil war wiping away his politican power in the new Iraq. Whatever his faults, and they are many, he’s become a shrewd politician after the shaky start in 2004.