View Full Version : The Baathists want a sectarian war.

02-24-06, 05:55 AM
The Iraq Violence
The Baathists want a sectarian war.

Friday, February 24, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

Critics of President Bush's Iraq policy have been predicting--and, in some cases, hoping--that without Saddam's iron rule the country was destined for sectarian civil war. Following Wednesday's devastating attack on the Shiite Golden Mosque in Samarra, it would be foolish to dismiss that possibility.

Shiite mobs have vented their anger in cities across Iraq, vandalizing Sunni mosques and killing scores in apparent revenge attacks. Moreover, this has happened against a background of two years of ethnic retrenchment--especially in the melting pot of Baghdad, where many Shiites and Sunnis alike have been forced to flee their homes for the relative safety of neighborhoods dominated by their own kind.

There is a danger this violence--the first truly widespread backlash against anti-Shiite terrorism--could be the tipping point beyond which neither U.S. forces nor Iraqi authorities can re-establish control. But it could equally be that this week's glimpse of hell will be the medicine that pushes Iraq away from the brink.

Hope for the latter is strengthened by our familiarity with the good sense of most Iraqis and the knowledge that the violence on both sides is the work of a few. Despite the hardships of the past few years, most Iraqis pride themselves on their cosmopolitanism and bridle at questions about their ethnic or sectarian background. "I am an Iraqi" is a common reply.

It is also remarkable that it has taken the Shiites so long to react this way. Carnage isn't a strong enough word for the myriad bombings they've suffered over the past several years, for the most part with stoicism and equanimity. Their restraint is all the more impressive given that we all know why the terror is happening and who is responsible. Killing Shiites to foment civil war has been the explicit strategy of the Saddamists who dominate the insurgency and their jihadist allies like Abu Musab al Zarqawi.

Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has been helpful as usual in calling for calm this week. But it's not a good sign that he felt compelled to temper his appeals with the warning that "if the government's security forces cannot provide the necessary protection, the believers will do it." Meanwhile, some Shiite politicians are clearly trying to exploit the situation to weaken U.S. influence. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, accused U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad of having given the "green light" for the mosque attack. Mr. Khalilzad's alleged crime: appealing to Iraqi politicians to form an inclusive government of national unity.

The worst Shiite leader of all is cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has taken over Sunni mosques in Baghdad--ostensibly to "protect" them, but clearly as a show of force. The current situation is a reminder of what a mistake it was not to deal more intelligently and forcefully with Sadr back in 2003.

But past mistakes can usually be overcome one way or another, and the worst thing the Bush Administration could do now is adopt a fatalistic attitude. The U.S. still has 140,000 very capable troops on the ground. Iraqis at large remain grateful for the liberation, and even emboldened politicians like Mr. Hakim would tone down their rhetoric if it was made clear they risked losing perks like their houses in the U.S.-protected Baghdad Green Zone.

Most important, perhaps, President Bush should not underestimate his personal popularity among Shiites and the extent to which his words can have a calming effect. His statements condemning the mosque attack have been helpful but don't go far enough. A televised address to Iraqis would be in order--or perhaps even a visit to convene a conference of national unity and seal an agreement on a new government.

The most important thing now is that ordinary Shiites not feel abandoned in the face of unrelenting Baathist and jihadist atrocities. (See Eliot Cohen's account of his visit to Iraq in today's Wall Street Journal). There's good reason to believe that, given time to reflect, they'll conclude the best revenge for the Golden Mosque attack isn't further violence, but a successful government that progressively and permanently marginalizes those who have done them harm.