IMAGE: DAMAGE IN BAGHDAD NEIGHBORHOOD
Karim Kadim  /  AP file
This Baghdad neighborhood, hit by rocket fire in mid-August, is one of many that have become battlegrounds between Shiite and Sunni groups. Dozens were killed in this predominantly Shiite area by the rockets, which apparently were fired from a mostly Sunni district.
msnbc.com news services
updated 9/2/2006 8:33:13 PM ET 2006-09-03T00:33:13

Conditions that could lead to a civil war exist in Iraq, reflecting the “most complex” security challenges since the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Pentagon said Friday.

The “core conflict” has changed into one pitting Sunni Muslims against Shiites, with the Sunni Arab insurgency overshadowed, it said in a quarterly report to Congress on U.S. efforts to stabilize the country.

In the notably gloomy report, The Pentagon said illegal militias have become more entrenched, especially in Baghdad neighborhoods where they are seen as providers of security as well as basic social services.

The report described a rising tide of sectarian violence, fed in part by interference from neighboring Iran and Syria and driven by a “vocal minority” of religious extremists who oppose the idea of a democratic Iraq.

Death squads targeting mainly Iraqi civilians are a growing problem, heightening the risk of civil war, it said.

“Death squads and terrorists are locked in mutually reinforcing cycles of sectarian strife,” the report said, adding that the Sunni-led insurgency “remains potent and viable” even as it is overshadowed by the sect-on-sect killing.

“Conditions that could lead to civil war exist in Iraq, specifically in and around Baghdad, and concern about civil war within the Iraqi civilian population has increased in recent months,” the report stated.

That assessment, which has been expressed publicly by U.S. military commanders and others in recent weeks, was tempered by a degree of optimism that the Iraqi government — with support from U.S. troops — will succeed in quelling the sectarian strife. Optimism among ordinary Iraqis, however, has declined, the 63-page report said.

Attacks up by 15 percent
The report provided a sober assessment of the situation in Iraq over the past three months, saying attacks increased by 15 percent over the prior three months and casualties among Iraqis surged 51 percent.

Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told reporters that although there has been progress this summer in reviving the Iraqi economy and raising electricity production, the security conditions have deteriorated even as the number of trained Iraqi troops has increased.

The report covered the period since the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki was seated May 20.

“The last quarter, as you know has been rough,” Rodman said. “The levels of violence are up and the sectarian quality of the violence is particularly acute and disturbing.”

Rising sectarian fighting between minority Sunnis, who controlled Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and the majority Shiites, who are ascending in power after decades of oppression, defines the emerging nature of violence in Iraq, the report stated.

When asked whether they believe “things will be better” in the future, the percentage of Iraqis responding positively has dropped fairly consistently over the past year — whether they were asked to look ahead six months, one year or five years — according to polling data cited in the report.

The report is the first to Congress since the Iraqi government assembled its full slate of ministers in early June. Since then, sectarian tensions have increased, “manifested in an increasing number of execution-style killings, kidnappings and attacks on civilians” and growing numbers of people forced from their homes, it said.

Spreading outside Baghdad
It said sectarian violence has spread from Baghdad into Diyala and Kirkuk provinces north of the capital. It also cited a rising problem with violence in the predominantly Shiite southern region, especially in the city of Basra.

“The security situation is currently at its most complex state since the initiation of Operation Iraq Freedom,” the report said, using the U.S. military’s name for the war that was launched in March 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein.

Although it acknowledged the risk of civil war, the report said the current violence does not amount to civil war and asserted momentum toward a civil war can be stopped.

“Breaking the cycle of violence is the most pressing goal of coalition and Iraqi operations,” it said.

The release of the report comes as the Bush administration pursues a campaign to bolster sagging U.S. public support, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others attacking critics two months before U.S. congressional elections.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Civil war fears growing in Iraq

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