The conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Basra is overshadowing the insurgency against occupation forces, as armed groups controlled by radical clerics take over power in the country. As Iran systematically expands its influence in southern Iraq, the Americans are being relegated to a secondary role.
In better times, Ghazaliya was a good neighborhood. Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had the west Baghdad neighborhood built for his loyal servants -- from officers to doormen. Despite the unrest of the past few years, the area managed to retain at least some measure of its former middle-class way of life. Religious affiliation was unimportant, with Shiite and Sunni families living peacefully side-by-side. But the current violence has put an end to Ghazaliya's normally quiet existence.
A corpse was found lying on Ghazaliya's main street last Wednesday. No one heard any shots, and no one saw a getaway car rushing from the scene. But everyone who dared set foot into the street knew the boy lying dead in a pool of his own blood: Mohammed, a 15- or 16-year-old day laborer who used to drive his donkey cart through the neighborhood once a week to collect garbage.
A neighbor, Omar Khalil, dialed 130, the police emergency line in Iraq. But the officer who answered the call was hesitant: "Ghazaliya? It's too dangerous there at this time of night. Bring us the corpse. Or keep it overnight, and we'll pick it up tomorrow morning."
There have been 12 murders in Ghazaliya in the space of two weeks, and not one has been solved. "In most cases, the identity of the victim indicates who the perpetrators were," says Khalil. "If the dead person had money, was a doctor or an engineer, for example, then he was shot by thieves. If it was a soldier or a high-ranking official under Saddam, it was the Shiites. But Mohammed was definitely killed by fanatical Sunnis." Khalil is so confident in reaching his conclusion because he knows that all garbage collectors in Iraq are Shiites.
The Iraqi people went to the polls more than two months ago, in an impressive display of democratic change. The official election results have been known for weeks, and the leaders of the large party groups have been negotiating over assembling a government. But the negotiations have been dragging on.
All the haggling over power and influence in Baghdad is only symbolically connected to the war going on in Iraq's streets. The attack on the Shiite Askari shrine in Samarra on February 22 and the resulting large-scale violence provided a glimpse of the abyss toward which Iraq could be headed. Dozens of mosques -- mostly Sunni but also Shiite houses of worship -- have already been destroyed, and by last Friday at least 480 people had lost their lives in the current wave of violence. The dead are mostly Sunnis, who have been accused of destroying the holy shrine in Samarra. The government has denied claims by Baghdad's central morgue that more than 1,300 people have been killed so far.
The outlook for Iraq is bleaker than it's been since the invasion. US diplomat Peter Galbraith, who fled Saddam's troops together with current President Jalal Talabani in 1991 and has known the Iraqi politician for 20 years, says he has never seen Talabani as pessimistic as in the past few days. "He is deeply concerned about the future of Iraq."
The United States, which lost 16 soldiers in the week following the attack on the Samarra shrine, finds itself oddly on the sidelines. Indeed, the struggle between Iraq's two dominant religious groups, the Shiites and the Sunnis, is overshadowing the resistance movement against occupying forces.
US President George W. Bush, speaking with his customary confidence, said that he disagrees with the view that Iraq is headed toward civil war. Instead, Bush is seeking to spin the current situation in Iraq into what he calls a choice "between chaos and unity."
The cornerstone of the Bush administration's foreign policy -- democratization of the Arab world -- is in jeopardy. Last week John Negroponte, former US ambassador in Baghdad and current director of national intelligence in Washington, warned that a civil war in Iraq could balloon into a conflict between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the Middle East. Indeed, the schism that is now developing in Iraq applies in all states with Shiite minorities -- from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon.
Seemingly oblivious to this concern, Iraq's political leaders, safely ensconced within Baghdad's hermetically sealed Green Zone, are busy vying for posts and ministerial positions in the new government. As recently as mid-February, it appeared that at least the top position had been settled: The United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition dominating the parliament, had again put forward Ibrahim al-Jaafari as a candidate for the office of prime minister.
But the proposal was met with strong opposition, both from Sunnis and Kurds and in other countries. Why, asked critics, bring back a prime minister who had proved incapable of controlling terrorism or corruption in his first term?
Last Thursday the Kurds, the Sunnis and group of secular politicians made the surprising announcement that they would form a broad coalition against Jaafari, if necessary. But this plan is based on the assumption that Shiite unity, a fragile constant in postwar Iraq, will prevail.
Jaafari was nominated with the approval of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, but against the will of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraqi (SCIRI), the biggest party within the Shiite alliance. There have been tensions between SCIRI and the Sadr camp for some time. Sadr wants to see a uniform state "from Kurdistan to Basra," while SCIRI favors a federalist model and wants to establish an autonomous Shiite region in southern Iraq. While Sadr seeks cooperation with the Sunni insurgency against the US occupation, SCIRI prefers to avoid open confrontation with the Americans.
The greatest risk to Iraq's future
The fact that both groups have armed militias make the conflict even more dangerous. Sadr heads the so-called Mahdi Army, a militia notoriously prone to violence. SCIRI maintains the Badr Brigades, a group of more than 10,000 fighters considered second only to the Kurds' Peshmerga militia in Iraq.
The militias pose a greater risk for the future of Iraq than the insurgent nationalists or the terrorists operating under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Unlike the Sunni-led insurgency, which has no recognizable hierarchy, the two Shiite militias are well-organized. They control individual Baghdad neighborhoods as well as entire cities and sections of territory in southern Iraq. The Badr Brigades have infiltrated the state security apparatus by taking over the Interior Ministry -- despite opposition from US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
It's clearly only a matter of time before the Sunnis develop their own militias. Sheikhs in western Iraq had already formed a first militia-like group, dubbed "The Revolutionaries of Anbar," before the Samarra crisis erupted.
A neutral, national authority that could serve as a counterweight to this trend does not exist, nor is it likely to develop anytime soon. The police force is largely under the control of the Shiite militias, and the military is moving in the same direction. "We now expect to see the third government within two years, with ministers coming and going," says Major General Mohammad al-Askari, spokesman of the Iraqi army. "Everyone brings in their own people and jobs are constantly changing hands, opening the way for infiltration."
With each new attack, members of the country's two major religious groups become increasingly fearful for their own safety -- amplifying the power of the militias, which are promising protection but are also competing for resources and territory. The 1970s civil war in Lebanon began along similar lines, when local conflicts among religious parties only heightened the distinctions among neighborhoods on the basis of religious affiliation. The same pattern is developing in Baghdad. In the city's western neighborhoods, Sunni flags fly over captured Shiite mosques. In the east, the Mahdi Army has recently taken many Sunnis hostage and murdered others. The rule of thumb is that the poorer the neighborhood, the more powerful are Sadr's militias.
Moderate voices losing ground
Although moderate leaders on all sides are still calling for calm, it is precisely these politicians -- be it Sunni leader Adnan Pachachi, the doyen of Iraqi postwar politics, or Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites -- who are losing influence as each day passes. At the same time, neighboring countries are showing increased interest in Iraq's troubles. Iran, in particular, has been systematically strengthening its dominant position in the south for months.
Muqtada al-Sadr, who was in Beirut on the day of the attack on the Shiite shrine in Samarra, first traveled to Iran before returning to Iraq, where he addressed his supporters in Basra, Amara and Najaf -- a detour that speaks volumes. Sadr then unleashed his militias while at the same time calling for calm.
Tehran's colonization of Shiite southern Iraq places Iraq's Sunni neighbors under pressure to respond. So far neighboring Arab countries have avoided contact with Iraq's Sunni resistance movement. Syria has done so half-heartedly, while Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait half clearly taken pains to avoid displeasing the United States. But this reticence is unlikely to last forever.
As Iran becomes more powerful in Iraq, Damascus, Amman and Riyadh are increasingly tempted to rush to the aid of their fellow Sunnis in the country. "The day will come," says Mustafa Alani of the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, "when the Arab neighbors will cooperate with the resistance movement -- not with terrorists like Zarqawi, but with groups that fear partition or complete Shiite dominance."
Suddenly America is left playing a secondary role in this growing conflict. US President Bush's approval rating dropped to 34 percent last week, and a clear majority of Americans now believe that the invasion was a mistake. But what are the superpower's remaining options?
In a current memorandum to the US government titled " Seven steps toward a last chance in Iraq," Iraq expert Kenneth Pollack writes that the 2006 will be a decisive year for the US administration, and that Washington has a time window of no more than "six to 12 months" to avert civil war.
In the memo, which he wrote with the help of military and security experts with experience in Iraq, Pollack proposes establishing small, solid protected zones, mainly in central and southern Iraq, which Pollack envisions will begin expanding on the map like "ink blots." The principal objective, according to Pollack, should not be hunting down terrorists, but rather giving large sections of the population a sense of security -- the only way, according to Pollack, to curb the growing influence of the militias.
The authors of the memo, which caused a stir in Washington, argue that if the plan succeeds in establishing at least a minimum level of security, the United Nations and civilian organizations should return to Iraq in large numbers to rebuild the "demolished country."
For the residents of Ghazaliya, security is a dream they hardly dare to dream anymore. Reality has an entirely different face in their neighborhood. The garbage collector's corpse has since been picked up, but Mohammed won't be the last person killed in Ghazaliya.