Risk of Civil War Spreads Fear Across Nation

Many worry that strains between Sunnis and Shiites could ignite a conflict that would overwhelm U.S. troops and the government.

By Jeffrey Fleishman

Los Angeles Times

May 29, 2005

BAGHDAD — Explosions rip through marketplaces, scattering blood and vegetables and leaving women wailing in the alleys. Bodies bob in rivers and are dug up from garbage dumps and parks. Kidnappers troll the streets, sirens howl through morning prayers and mortar rounds whistle against skylines of minarets.

Iraqis awake each day to the sounds of violence. With little respite, many wonder whether strange, terrible forces are arrayed against them. They fear that weeks of sectarian and clan violence, claiming the lives of all types from imams to barefoot fishermen, are a prelude to civil war.

"I'm worried 24 hours a day," said Zainab Hassan, a university student majoring in computer science. "Whenever I hear bomb or shooting, I call my mother and husband to check if they're OK. I can see a civil war coming, it's obvious. Everybody is talking about it. We have to be more careful."

Iraqis such as Abu Mohammed, who sells books along the Tigris River, struggle to comprehend how the euphoria of January's election has withered so quickly. They find contradictions rather than answers. Life has become a vicious thrum, with boys clinging to courtyard walls and gun battles beneath the date palms appearing live on TV.

Interviews with Iraqis from Basra to Baghdad to Mosul suggest that much of the nation fears that intensifying strains between Sunni and Shiite Muslims could ignite a conflict that would overwhelm the increasingly unpopular Iraqi government and 140,000 U.S. troops. Abu Mohammed blames, among others, Saddam Hussein, who, even from his jail cell, seems to taunt the country.

"Saddam created hostile sentiments between Sunni and Shiite," Mohammed said. "It was like a fire hidden under a cover and waiting to turn into a blaze. The remnants of Saddam Hussein are now trying to stoke and enlarge this fire. I blame both the Shiites and the Sunnis for playing parts in stirring up hostilities."

Nearly 700 people have been killed in car bombings and by shootings and beheadings in the last month. What concerns U.S. officials and ordinary Iraqis is that militant leaders such as Abu Musab Zarqawi are attempting to instigate a two-track war: one, the continuing battle between insurgents and American and Iraqi forces, and another between Shiite and Sunni Arabs that could possibly draw in Kurds from the north.

"It's time for Iraqis to stand together to foil the dirty attempts of the enemies to implant sectarian war on this injured country," said Naim Salman, a civil servant in Baghdad. "The government is trying its best, but it is still not enough. It is a new government and it needs time, especially when terrorists are infiltrating ministries."

The Sunnis were the beneficiaries and power behind Hussein's Baathist regime. Many of them, including influential leaders, opposed the Shiite-dominated government that followed Hussein and formed the heart of the insurgency.

Some Sunnis have begun to rejoin the political process. But so far, the government has been unable to persuade the nation's minority Sunni population to abandon its suspicions, and the squabbles in the corridors of the National Assembly have inspired violence tied to religion and clan.

Nafi Alfartoosi, editor of a newspaper in Samawah in Shiite-dominated southern Iraq, said, "The failure of the government to stop sectarian terrorism of Sunnis against Shiites has deepened the gap between the government and the people. I am sure that many of the millions who voted are sorry for going out on Jan. 30. This weakness in stopping sectarian terrorism and halting bloodshed is encouraging" those seeking a civil war.

Sunni and Shiite organizations, along with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, have sought to calm tensions over the last week. But the effort is hindered by spiraling violence that since April 29 has included the killing of at least 10 Sunni and Shiite clerics, among them Mohammed Tahir Allaq, a representative of one of the nation's top Shiite leaders, Ayatollah Mohammed Saeed Hakim.

Some Shiite and Sunni leaders have blamed each other for the assassinations.

Images of the coffins of clerics being carried through the streets have unnerved a public that has had scant peace since Hussein was toppled two years ago and the country occupied by U.S.-led forces that quickly encountered an insurgency. The January election brought a brief gust of normality, but that has shattered with the surge in car bombings.

In a Baghdad University poll taken earlier this year, more than 80% of the Iraqis questioned expected their government to gain strength in coming months. That has dropped to 45% today.

With the insurgency killing more civilians, anger against American forces has intensified. Many Iraqis view the U.S. as an unwanted godfather who, despite his prowess and streams of military convoys, can't provide the basics let alone protect them from extremists who badger the nation with Internet screeds and jihadist rants on the radio.

"I only want to put this question to you," said Sana Abdul-Kareem, a dentist with four children. "Why can't the U.S., with all its might and capabilities, impose security here? How come with all our oil they cannot provide us with electricity? My son was so happy when the American soldiers first came. But after two years of failure to make good on their promises, he abhors them."

Baghdad resident Ali Jalal said: "The Americans are behind these problems. They don't want the country to be stabilized…. The Iraqi government is like a doll in the hands of the Americans."

Many Iraqis choose denial to cope with the seething times around them. A Shiite will tell you he is married to a Sunni, or a Sunni to a Shiite. They will tell you their families are an intermingling of Iraq's classes and religions and that they have lived in harmony for generations. But every day new families line up outside morgues and new markers are added to graveyards. They blame it on terrorists and outside forces, who, they say, manipulate their lives much as Hussein did.

"It's a policy of divide and conquer being applied by our occupiers," said Abu Izz, a Baghdad antiques dealer who was born in Fallouja. A civil war will not succeed because Iraqis are all brothers and relatives, he added.

"You may not believe this, but some of my relatives are promujahedin [Sunnis], and others are members of the Badr Brigade [Shiites] and others are clergy. This is how we are interrelated."

"Iraq is one nation, one land and one heart," said Sinaa Ali Musa, a state worker from Samawah.

But Musa, a Shiite, conceded there were divisions. "I think the Shiites are being subjected to all kinds of terrorism because the Sunnis are losing power."

Others consider Sunnis the victims. "There has been a flagrant violation of Sunni rights," said Saad Abdul Aziz Siqar, a Sunni from Basra. "This is affecting relationships between the two sects and could lead to war…. The Shiites have power and authority over us and are treating us like a minority."

Navigating such chaos psychologically, and even on rural roads and city streets, has trapped many Iraqis.

"It's the same problem everyday — traffic, traffic, roads are closed and in addition to that, we have national guards aiming their weapons toward us," said Tanya Mazin, a student at Baghdad University.

"We are living in stress and fear. I do not think this will end one day because it's going from bad to worse."


Times staff writers Suhail Ahmad, Saif Rasheed and Zainab Hussein in Baghdad, special correspondents Othman Ghanim in Basra and Hassan Halawa in Samawah and a correspondent in Mosul contributed to this report.