Iraq's Cracks Widen


Los Angeles Times

May 17, 2005

The installation of a new government in Iraq has done nothing to end the fighting between adherents of the rival branches of Islam, Sunnis and Shiites. Sunni insurgents have killed more than 400 people since the new regime was announced last month. Now Shiites appear to be taking revenge on Sunnis, a nightmare threatening to fracture the nation.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Iraq Sunday was an important reminder of the large U.S. stake in having the country ruled by a government that reflects Sunni and Shiite Arabs and the Kurds, who are Sunni but not Arab. Nearly 140,000 U.S. troops remain in the nation more than two years after the invasion, and it still isn't clear whether the legacy of American occupation will be a functioning constitutional democracy or outright civil war.

Rice met with Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and other officials in a position to open the government to the Sunnis, who account for only about 20% of the Iraqi population but who ruthlessly ruled the country under Saddam Hussein, a coreligionist.

Although Shiites have largely forsaken revenge since Hussein was ousted, that appears to be changing. On the day of Rice's visit, nearly three dozen bodies thought to be Sunnis slain by Shiites were found in several locations in or near Baghdad. Other large-scale killings in recent weeks also have been blamed on retaliating Shiites. If revenge attacks gain more momentum, the government's fledgling security forces may not have the ability to stop the violence.

Rice told the New York Times she was concerned that of the 55 members of the parliamentary committee drafting the new Iraqi constitution, only two were Sunni Arabs. Sunnis foolishly boycotted the Jan. 30 elections, but some of their leaders appear to be having second thoughts. The Shiites need to draw them into the government and ensure that those put on committees or given high positions are genuine representatives of the community, and not merely tokens acceptable to the Shiites.

The communal violence reverberates outside Iraq. Sunnis are the majority in neighboring Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey, which fear a Shiite theocracy linked to the one next door in Iran.

Jafari, head of an Islamic political group, met Monday with the country's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and said later that Sistani had told him that Sunni Arabs should have a bigger role in the government and in drafting the constitution. The advice from the top U.S. diplomat and the leading clergyman in Iraq should push Jafari, Cabinet ministers and parliamentarians to seek Sunni leaders, determine who has influence with the insurgents and try to bring them into the political process.