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Iraq may be slipping into civil war
Updated: 2004-02-17 08:52

Sunni politicians speak angrily of U.S. bias toward their Shiite rivals. Kurds are more outspoken in demanding self rule — if not independence. And someone — perhaps al-Qaeda, perhaps Saddam Hussein loyalists — killed more than 100 people in recent suicide bombings.

Rivalry and resentment among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups have become much more pronounced since Saddam's ouster in April. And those tensions are rising as various groups jockey for position with the approaching June 30 deadline for Iraqis to retake power

The fault lines are emerging for a possible civil war.

Veteran U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who just finished a visit to the country, pointedly warned Iraqi leaders they face "very serious dangers" if they do not put the interests of the nation ahead of those of their clans, tribes, ethnic groups and religious communities.

"I have appealed to the members of the Governing Council and to Iraqis in every part of Iraqi to be conscious that civil wars do not happen because a person makes a decision, 'Today, I'm going to start a civil war,'" Brahimi told a news conference on Friday at the end of a mission to discuss ways of setting up an empowered Iraqi government.

Brahimi, who helped mediate civil conflicts in Lebanon and Yemen, told Iraqis that civil wars erupt "because people are reckless, people are selfish, because people think more of themselves than they do of their country."

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed that civil war was possible, citing conflicts that erupted in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union after the collapse of Communist authoritarian rule.

Even before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last March, some Western and Arab scholars predicted the country would plunge into civil war as soon as Saddam's totalitarian rule collapsed.

So far, many Iraqis insist they are determined to keep the peace, saying their nation is already worn down by three devastating wars since 1980, decades of dictatorship and nearly 13 years of crippling U.N. sanctions.

"We never fought each other," said Hamid al-Kafaai, spokesman for Iraq's Governing Council. "We are one nation and we will stay united."

However, unity has always proven difficult in Iraq, cobbled together from three separate Ottoman provinces by colonial Britain after World War I.

Saddam's Baath party held the rival clans, tribes, ethnic groups and religious communities together through a mixture of terror against its domestic enemies and patronage to those who remained loyal.

That formula held the nation together after Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War after Shiites and Kurds rose up, only to be crushed by Saddam's forces.

With Saddam gone, signs of social disintegration are emerging. The Shiites and Kurds believe they now have a historical opportunity to regain their rights — to the alarm of the Sunni Arabs.

Majority Shiites expect to translate their numbers — an estimated 60 per cent of Iraq's 25 million people — into real political power.

The demands of their most influential spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, for an early election to choose a transitional legislature have pitted them against the Sunni Arab minority, who feel that such a ballot will further marginalize them.

The Sunni Arabs, bristling at the loss of their privileges under Saddam, have challenged the widely held view that the Shiites constitute a majority and accuse them of colluding with the Americans against them. Following Saturday's bloody attack against police and civil defense units in the Sunni stronghold Fallujah, rumors spread through the city that Shiite Muslim militiamen were responsible, although that seemed unlikely.

Sunni frustrations are behind the enduring anti-American insurgency in Baghdad and in Sunni-dominated areas to the north and west of the capital. Shiites have for the most part left the Americans in peace. The Shiite clerical leadership believes that it will inherit power as the Americans gradually withdraw.

"It flies in the face of Iraq's history of the past 80 years to imagine that the Sunnis will accept Shiite domination or allow them to rule," said Gareth Stansfield of the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies at England's University of Exeter.

In a letter released by U.S. authorities Wednesday, an anti-American operative, believed to be Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, tells leaders of al-Qaeda that turning the country's religious communities against one another is the best way to undermine U.S. policy in Iraq.

"The potential for a civil war is already in place," said Stansfield of Exeter University. "It does not need al-Qaeda to encourage it."

The Kurds, believed to form 15-20 per cent of the population, remain fixated on a single goal — preserving and expanding the self rule they have enjoyed in their northern regions since 1991.

Kurds are locked in a power struggle with Sunni Arabs over the limits of federalism in the new Iraq. Kurdish claims to Kirkuk have served to unite the oil-rich city's Arab and ethnic Turkish residents against them and have raised alarm bells here and in neighboring countries over the possible dismemberment of Iraq.

Worsening tensions come at a time of increased suicide attacks against Iraqis who cooperate with the U.S.-led coalition. Such attacks cast doubt on U.S. claims that Iraqi security forces can maintain order after the handover of sovereignty this summer.

Those doubts have encouraged key Iraqi groups to resist coalition demands to disband armed militias such as the Kurdish peshmergas, who fought with U.S. troops against Saddam's military last year, and the Shitte Badr Brigade.

Moderate Islamic writer Fahmi Howeidi has warned the power transfer could provide the catalyst for civil war.

"The possibility of a civil war breaking out cannot be ruled out if the withdrawal goes ahead against this backdrop of a huge void in central authority," he wrote in a recent article published in the London-based, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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