IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Iraq sectarian strife imperils entire region

While American commanders have suggested that an Iraq civil war is possible, many leaders, experts and ordinary people around the Middle East say it is already underway, and that the real worry ahead is that the conflict will destroy the Iraqi state and draw in surrounding countries.
A man inspects a bakery shop following a deadly attack in Baghdad on Thursday.
A man inspects a bakery shop following a deadly attack in Baghdad on Thursday.Hadi Mizban / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

While American commanders have suggested that civil war is possible in Iraq, many leaders, experts and ordinary people in Baghdad and around the Middle East say it is already underway, and that the real worry ahead is that the conflict will destroy the flimsy Iraqi state and draw in surrounding countries.

Whether the U.S. military departs Iraq sooner or later, the United States will be hard-pressed to leave behind a country that does not threaten U.S. interests and regional peace, according to U.S. and Arab analysts and political observers.

"We're not talking about just a full-scale civil war. This would be a failed-state situation with fighting among various groups," growing into regional conflict, Joost Hiltermann, Middle East project director for the International Crisis Group, said by telephone from Amman, Jordan.

"The war will be over Iraq, over its dead body," Hiltermann said.

"All indications point to a current state of civil war and the disintegration of the Iraqi state," Nawaf Obaid, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an adviser to the Saudi government, said last week at a conference in Washington on U.S.-Arab relations.

Anxiety over any division of Iraq
As Iraq's neighbors grapple with the various ideas put forward for solving the country's problems, they uniformly shudder at one proposal: dividing Iraq into separate regions for Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, and then speeding the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

"To envision that you can divide Iraq into three parts is to envision ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, sectarian killing on a massive scale," Prince Turki al-Faisal, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, said Oct. 30 at a conference in Washington. "Since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave Iraq uninvited."

"When the ethnic-religious break occurs in one country, it will not fail to occur elsewhere, too," Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Germany's Der Spiegel newsweekly recently. "It would be as it was at the end of the Soviet Union, only much worse. Large wars, small wars -- no one will be able to get a grip on the consequences."

In an analysis published last month by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Obaid said sectarian conflicts could make Iraq a battleground for the region.

Obaid described widespread interference by Iranian security forces within Iraq. He urged Saudi Arabia, which is building a 560-mile wall on its border with Iraq, to warn Iran "that if these activities are not checked," Saudi Arabia "will be forced to consider a similar overt and covert program of its own."

‘Regional war is very much a possibility’
In Damascus, a Syrian analyst close to the Assad government warned that other countries would intervene if Iraq descended into full-scale civil war. "Iran will get involved, Turkey will get involved, Saudi Arabia, Syria," said the analyst, who spoke on condition he not be identified further.

"Regional war is very much a possibility," said Hiltermann, the analyst for the International Crisis Group. Iraq's neighbors "are hysterical about Iranian strategic advances in the region," he said.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad last month ranked Syria and Iran with al-Qaeda in Iraq, one of the country's principal Sunni Arab insurgent groups, in terms of destabilizing influences in Iraq. Despite that assessment, the United States has not held substantive talks with Syria regarding Iraq since 2004 or with Iran since the war began in 2003.

Diplomats and analysts increasingly are urging the Bush administration to reach out to both countries as part of a regional approach to quelling Iraq's troubles. Former secretary of state James A. Baker III, leader of a panel preparing a set of policy recommendations for the Bush administration, already has endorsed the idea of seeking the help of Iran and Syria.

"The thing is, because Iran and Syria both have spoiling power in Iraq, if you could neutralize them," it would ease some of the many pressures within Iraq, Hiltermann said. But he said the two countries may demand a mighty trade-off: for Syria, U.S. help with its biggest stated aim, winning back the Golan Heights from Israel; for Iran, U.S. compromise over its nuclear program.

Hiltermann acknowledged the difficulty. "I'm saying it's required," he said. "I'm not saying it's possible."

In Baghdad's Shiite stronghold of Sadr City late last month, aides to one of the country's leading Shiite clerics held a rally to urge followers to bide their time until the American forces leave the country. The rally was called by followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, a strongly anti-occupation figure whose bloc is a leading partner in the current Shiite-led government and who is one likely claimant to power should the Americans withdraw.

"Will America win?" a speaker in a brown turban demanded before the more than 1,000 protesters, as a brewing storm whirled dirt and trash and pelted ralliers with drops of cold rain. Loudspeakers shot his question back across the square.

The men thrust their fists in the air, shouting their answer out to a grim, gray sky: "No, no! America will not win!"

'This is civil war'
Between 2 percent and 5 percent of Iraq's 27 million people have been killed, wounded or uprooted since the Americans invaded in 2003, calculates Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for International and Strategic Studies.

"This is civil war," he said.

Since midsummer, Shiite militias, Sunni insurgent groups, ad-hoc Sunni self-defense groups and tribes have accelerated campaigns of sectarian cleansing that are forcing countless thousands of Shiites and Sunnis in Baghdad to seek safety among their own kind.

Whole towns north and south of Baghdad are locked in the same sectarian struggle, among them the central Shiite city of Balad, still under siege by gunmen from surrounding Sunni towns after a bloody spate of sectarian massacres last month.

Even outside the epicenter of sectarian strife in the central region of the country, Shiite factions battle each other in the south, Sunni tribes and factions clash in the west. Across Iraq, the criminal gangs that emerged with the collapse of law and order rule patches of turf as mini-warlords.

Since the war began, 1.6 million Iraqis have sought refuge in neighboring countries; at least 231,530 people have been displaced inside Iraq since February, when Shiite-Sunni violence exploded with the bombing of a Shiite shrine in the northern city of Samarra, according to figures from the United Nations and the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration.

There used to be a time when Sunnis and Shiites "were living like family. We were married to each other, we all had Sunni friends, we all had Shiite friends. It was all like a balloon that exploded," a gaunt, weeping Sunni woman said in her bare apartment.

Until this year, the 41-year-old widow and former teacher -- who would identify herself only as Um Mohammed, fearing retaliation -- lived in Husseiniyah, a Shiite district of Baghdad. But after Shiite militias forced all the Sunnis out, she fled to a too-costly, too-small place in the overwhelmingly Sunni neighborhood of Sadiyah, on the western side of the Tigris River.

The Mahdi Army and the Badr Organization, two militias loyal to the Shiite religious parties now governing Iraq, had taken over her old neighborhood by this spring, she said. Mahdi Army officials commandeered the two rental homes she relied on to support herself and her children. They forced the Sunni tenants out and installed Shiite families, who paid her rent through the Mahdi Army office, at a greatly reduced price set by the militia, the widow said.

Letters placed at the doors of Sunni families -- sometimes with bloody bullets tucked inside the envelopes -- warned Sunnis to leave. Shiite boys as young as 10 took to wearing the black clothes of the militias, and they promised her 10-year-old son, Ahmed, they would burn him alive in his house at night as he slept.

Um Mohammed reluctantly took her only other child still at home, a 15-year-old daughter, out of school and married her off to an older man in Sadiyah in a bid to provide her protection among fellow Sunnis. When Um Mohammed received a third letter threatening death, she and Ahmed finally moved to Sadiyah. Longtime Shiite neighbors sadly watched her leave but were too afraid of the militias to help her move, she said.

"I want to return to my home. But we are safer here," she said.

Across the Tigris River from Um Mohammed, another widow, Zayneb Khatan, a Shiite, sat in her equally plain new home. After gunmen shot and killed her husband in front of their home in the Sunni neighborhood of Cairo as he went to buy bread, Khatan fled with her 2-year-old daughter and the clothes on their backs.

"Some Sunnis are good," she said as she sat on a secondhand divan. "But I cannot say I will ever live among them again."