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Iraqi Violence Escalates as Government Calls for Unity

July 10, 2006 at 6:10 PM EST
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SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: It was a bloody weekend in Iraq, marked by sectarian killing and new warnings of civil war. On Sunday, Shiite gunmen went on an afternoon rampage, killing Sunni Arabs in the western Baghdad neighborhood of al-Jihad, located between the Green Zone and the Baghdad airport.

Witnesses reported gunmen at fake checkpoints killing those with Sunni names. Some 40 bodies were collected from the streets, according to Iraqi police and hospital reports.

IRAQI CITIZEN (through translator): Whoever was Sunni was dragged out and killed. They called me and told me I would find my husband at the morgue. Is this how it should be? Is this Islam?

SPENCER MICHELS: Hours later came the retaliation. Two car bombs detonated outside a Shiite mosque in central Baghdad. At least 17 people were killed; three dozen more were wounded.

The rise in the sectarian violence comes just seven weeks after a new unity government took office. And today, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appealed for all Iraqis to unite as brothers.

National Presidential Security Adviser Wafiq al-Samaraie told Al-Jazeera Television today, “We are at the gates of civil war.”

While appealing for calm, President Jalal Talabani, who is Sunni, also warned that Iraq stood “in front of a dangerous precipice.”

During a NewsHour interview last month, Iraq’s foreign minister said the sectarian violence was going to be the new government’s biggest hurdle and that time is running out.

HOSHYAR ZEBARI, Iraqi Foreign Minister: I believe the next six months will be very crucial to test this government and what it can deliver; in terms of security; in terms of providing services; in terms of moving Iraq forward; being more self-reliant on security; building security forces. And these are serious challenges.

SPENCER MICHELS: But the new government’s security crackdown in Baghdad has done little to stem the violence in the capital. Today, black-clad Shiite militiamen were on the streets, guarding against more revenge attacks, even as Iraqi police patrolled nearby.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

Morphing insurgency

Trudy Rubin
The Philadephia Inquirer
For the first two, two-and-a-half years of this fighting, the Shiites turned the other cheek. Their religious leaders asked them not to take revenge. But, as of last February, with an attack on a major shrine, that cap has come off.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the latest surge in violence in Baghdad, who is behind it and what it means for the new Iraqi government, we turn to two analysts who visited the Iraqi capital last month.

Phebe Marr is a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, an organization that promotes conflict resolution. She's currently finishing a major study of the emerging leadership in Iraqi.

And Trudy Rubin is a foreign affairs columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She's been to Iraq six times since the March 2003 invasion.

And welcome to you, both.

Phebe Marr, beginning with you, why, now that Iraq has this national unity government, are we seeing this continued and, in fact in Baghdad right now, this increase in sectarian violence?

PHEBE MARR, Senior Fellow, United States Institute of Peace: Well, there were many reasons for it. Of course, the government is still relatively new, but I think there are a number of reasons.

The insurgency itself has kind of morphed into ethnic and sectarian violence. And the major parties to this, as referred to Shia and Sunni, are also fragmented and broken into different groups, which are struggling for power in Baghdad.

And I think the central government itself has been hollowed out. To a large extent, it's a result of incapacity, not enough police or good enough police, not enough security on the streets. And this has been a continuing problem which allows extremes to push this violence.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, just what do you mean by hollowed out? You mean, since Saddam's time?

PHEBE MARR: That's right, since Saddam's time.

MARGARET WARNER: I see.

Trudy Rubin, fresh from your trip there, what do you think explains it? I mean, al-Maliki came in saying the number-one thing he wanted to do was bring security to Baghdad. He announced a crackdown.

TRUDY RUBIN, Columnist, Philadelphia Inquirer: It's a circular problem. The Shiites say that, if the government cannot prevent insurgents from attacking them, then they have to turn to their militias. And then the Sunnis say, Well, if militias are going to attack Sunni civilians, then we can't take part in the central government.

I think that what has gone wrong is that the insurgency has seen that provoking a civil war is the way to create chaos and fight the Americans. It works better than attacking the Americans directly.

When I was in Iraq last, in June, when Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed, there was the hope that major attacks on Shiites to provoke a civil war would go down, because that was his avowed aim. But what has become clear since then is that, whether it's al-Qaida or whether it is Sunni Baathists, the same tactic is being used.

And what has happened is that, for the first two, two-and-a-half years of this fighting, the Shiites turned the other cheek. Their religious leaders asked them not to take revenge. But, as of last February, with an attack on a major shrine, that cap has come off.

And now you have, especially the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical cleric with one foot in the government and one foot in violence, is using this chance to take revenge to build up his strength as a political force in Iraq.

Political manipulation

Phebe Marr
United States Institute of Peace
The Sunnis are equally fragmented. Some are in the government; some are out. Ordinary people, Sunnis in Baghdad, need some protection. They do not yet trust the new government.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Phebe Marr, do you think, for instance the atrocious event we saw yesterday, that this is sort of sectarian bloodlust or uncontrollable thirst for revenge, or do you think it is also being manipulated and guided by some political actors? And if so, whom?

PHEBE MARR: Certainly, some of it is retaliation and, as Trudy said, reliance on militias. But one of the things that's happened, as I mentioned, is that these various components, the Sunni component, the Shia component, are fragmented.

There are many elements there. Muqtada al-Sadr and his group is one. In fact, he's not even one. Many people refer to his movement as franchised. There are many freelancers out there under his umbrella who might be doing this somewhat on their own, with a wink and a nod from Muqtada. Of course...

MARGARET WARNER: You mean, they might call themselves -- they're part of the Mahdi Army, but it's not really one organized Mahdi Army?

PHEBE MARR: The question of how much he controls all of their actions all of the time is a question. This is not to let him off the hook, because he, indeed, is making a play for power.

The Sunnis are equally fragmented. Some are in the government; some are out. Ordinary people, Sunnis in Baghdad, need some protection. They do not yet trust the new government.

And development of a police force, a security force is slow. It's just not coming. And so there just aren't any national or local police on the streets. They have to develop government capacity that's somehow trusted and efficient.

MARGARET WARNER: Trudy Rubin, to what degree do you think this is being directed, manipulated by certain political forces in or out of the country?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think that's a crucial question. Just while this terrible violence was going on over this weekend, there was a conference going on in Tehran of regional foreign ministers. This was hosted by Tehran, and all the Arab foreign ministers, including the Saudis and the Gulf states were there. And Iran made a statement that the U.S. forces should be withdrawn from Iraq.

You can't disconnect this from what is going on inside Iraq. Many people believe, including Iraqi government officials and U.S. officials, that Iran is very much involved. Certainly, there are many, many Iranian agents in Baghdad, in Iraq. And many people believe that Muqtada al-Sadr has strong backing from elements of the Revolutionary Guard.

I was in Iran just before my trip to Iraq. That was in late May. And senior Iranian officials made it very clear that they regard themselves as the major player in this. And they want the United States to know that the U.S. cannot have a peaceful resolution in Iraq unless they get help from Iran, and there is going to be a price for that.

So I would not be surprised if somewhere in this recent upsurge, especially with elements of the Mahdi Army, you had an Iranian hand.

The Iranian hand in Iraq

Trudy Rubin
The Philadephia Inquirer
The U.S. has to be thinking more about a regional strategy because if, as I believe, Iran is involved in this, they do have a lot of cards to play, cards that we have basically given them by taking out their biggest enemies, Saddam and the Taliban.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree?

PHEBE MARR: There certainly is an Iranian hand. Some of it may be behind Muqtada al-Sadr, but the Iranians have spread their assets widely.

The party that the prime minister belongs to has had some Iranian support. The one that didn't get the prime ministership has had Iranian support, so they can manipulate and use a number of levers.

MARGARET WARNER: And to what end?

PHEBE MARR: Well, we have a number of issues with Iran, nuclear weapons being one. Their support for what we consider terrorist groups in Israel is another. And the more we put pressure on Iran here, the more they can pull the strings in Iraq; that's very clear.

MARGARET WARNER: Trudy Rubin, so what is the resolution to this? I mean, as we've said earlier, this new government came in, said they wanted to at least secure Baghdad. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, was on this program a month ago and said he really thought the solution was going to be political, not military.

That is that, now that you had a national unity government, the Sunnis and the Shia in the government would tell these forces in the street to cool it. What do you think the solution is?

TRUDY RUBIN: It's very hard to see the solution. I'll tell you one thing that is disappointing in the seven weeks since this government has taken power.

When I saw Ambassador Khalilzad when I was in Iraq in June, he said and he has said frequently that Baghdad, the security of Baghdad is crucial. This is the capital, 20-25 percent of the population. The country can't work unless Baghdad works.

And there was a hope that there would be a security initiative very quickly in Baghdad, and that certain areas would be closed off, and that this kind of violence could be suppressed. And, mind you, the Sunni insurgent violence, as part of this vicious circle, has to be suppressed because, if Sunni -- whether they're Baathists or outside Zarqawi elements, terrorists -- if they're attacking Shiite mosques with impunity, then the Shiites will strike back.

So it seems that so far the Maliki government is just not able, with U.S. help, to mount any sort of serious offensive in Baghdad.

It was also hoped that a new interior minister could make some difference; so far he hasn't been able to, Mr. Bolani.

So the question is: Will those security forces get any better in the coming weeks? And I think the longer that this deterioration goes on, the less faith the public has in the security forces. And these are the elements on which U.S. strategy is pinned in order to quiet down the situation.

I also think the U.S. has to be thinking more about a regional strategy because if, as I believe, Iran is involved in this, they do have a lot of cards to play, cards that we have basically given them by taking out their biggest enemies, Saddam and the Taliban. And so the whole way that we deal with Iran has to be considered very seriously because they can make Baghdad a misery.

Need more force to solve problem

Phebe Marr
United States Institute of Peace
It's not just Iran, but Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, the Gulf also has its interests and, indeed, more than a hand in this, as well. And if there's going to be a solution, they have to be brought into this, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, Phebe Marr, there is a political solution to this? Or will it take essentially a tremendous show of force on the part of the new government, if they can?

PHEBE MARR: They don't have the force, first of all. It is going to take a political solution, because they do have to do something about the militias. There has to be an agreement with the people in the cabinet, almost all of whom have their own militias.

So without this political agreement to do something about them, you can't do something about them. And then you have to have some capable force, some capability to actually do it.

And no matter how much we may talk about the political solution, until the police force, the security force is capable, they can't.

And I would like to add it's not just Iran, but Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, the Gulf also has its interests and, indeed, more than a hand in this, as well. And if there's going to be a solution, they have to be brought into this, as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Phebe Marr, Trudy Rubin, we have to leave it there, but thank you.