Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 May 2005
Issue No. 743
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

When do we call it civil war?

In addition to car bombs, murder is increasing at an alarming rate in Iraq, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif

Click to view caption
An Iraqi woman grieves outside the morgue containing the bodies of 13 blindfolded and bound men who were found shot in the head execution-style in Baghdad's Sadr City on Monday 18 May

Revenge attacks, sectarian killings and mass graves dominated the scene in Iraq this week. Fears of escalating sectarian tension have been growing with the discovery of scores of bodies in different locations across the country.

On Sunday, at least 35 bodies were found slain in Baghdad. The bodies, believed to carry retaliatory or sectarian markings, were found in and around Sadr City as well as in a southern area of Baghdad known as the death triangle. Others found elsewhere are believed to be Shia ambushed by Sunni guerrillas on the dangerous road between Baghdad and the city of Najaf.

Sunnis were not spared in the attacks. According to Adnan Al-Duliemi, head of the Sunni Endowment, a religious organisation that supervises mosques and shrines, the bodies found in the districts of Al-Shaab and Or in eastern Baghdad, or that found in Jackouk, to the west of the capital, are believed to be Sunni Iraqis. Al-Duliemi warned that such "crimes" could plunge the country into civil war. He called on the newly appointed government to open an investigation into the killings.

"I plead to the prime minister to make an honourable stand against those who committed the murders and are inciting on civil strife in this country," Al-Duliemi told a press conference on Monday.

Implicitly, Al-Duliemi suggested that the Iraqi Police Forces were complacent about, even complicit with, those killings. He made a veiled reference to what is known as the Fox Brigade, which is a special force formed to combat terrorist activities. Muthanna Hareth Al-Dhari, spokesperson for the Muslim Scholars Association, reiterated Al-Duleimi's oblique suspicions about the possible involvement of the Iraqi police. "The Committee of Muslim Scholars warns about state terrorism which results from giving militias a free rein to clamp down on our people," Al-Dhari said.

Al-Duliemi, on the other hand, revealed that a relatively big number of imams have asked him to close down the mosques for fear of being targeted by attacks, since religious leaders were not spared from the violence. Shia cleric Qassim Al- Gharawi was murdered in a drive-by shooting in western Baghdad last week. Quraish Abdul-Jabbar, a Sunni cleric, was reportedly shot dead and his body dumped behind a mosque in northeastern Baghdad on Monday.

The unexplained killings sparked condemnation from Iraq's top Shia clerics who urged Iraqis to exercise self-restraint. Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shia authority, called on Shia and Sunni communities to "maintain brotherly relations". In his first press conference in a year, the young Shia leader Moqtada Al-Sadr blamed "the occupiers who wanted to drive a wedge among Iraqis". "There are no Sunnis or Shia, there are Iraqis," he said in a rare appearance on Monday.

Many fear that such conciliatory statements are not likely to pacify an already troubled situation or put an end to a two- week spree of sectarian carnage, separate from the loss of life to insurgency-based bombings, that claimed the lives of at least 100 Iraqis. There are growing concerns that the Shia militia, the Badr Brigade -- the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- is not heeding calls for self-restraint but rather has gone on a killing spree in retaliation for murders committed by some wings within the Iraqi insurgency.

But Iraqi observers played down talk of a civil war. According to one university professor, there is a high level of sectarian tension, but the current situation has more to do with deteriorating security and economic hardship. "It is very crucial that the newly appointed government should deliver on some of its promises of restoring security to the streets of Iraq as soon as possible," said Nadhim Al-Jassour of Al- Mustansiriya University.

The rise in sectarian killing came as the newly appointed government initiated discussions about the process of drafting a new Iraqi constitution. On a surprise visit to Baghdad on Sunday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice contributed to the debate by stressing, during a press conference with the Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, the importance of having Sunni Arabs more involved in the drafting process, a view echoed by Al-Sistani. Iraq's Sunnis are not taking a full part in the process and have only token representation -- two out of 55 members -- on the committee charged with the task of writing the constitution.

Rice's statements were seen as an attempt to soothe the fears of Iraq's Sunnis, assuring them that they will play a key role in the shaping of future political processes in the country. Sunni leaders, while welcoming the words of the US secretary of state, remained sceptical about US intentions. "The association is not preoccupied with drafting the constitution when the country is going on the road to sectarian strife," Essam Al-Raway, a member of the Muslim Scholars Association, said.

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