Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 March 2006
Issue No. 784
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

On the brink

Can Iraq agree on a national unity government to pull it back from the spectre of civil war, asks Omayma Abdel-Latif

Click to view caption
Days after the devastating bombing of a sacred Shia mosque in Samaraa, north of Baghdad, Shias in London took to the streets in passionate support of the unity of Iraq, rejecting all attempts to divide the nation along sectarian lines

Before and after Askariya

The myth of civil war

Living murder

"There is ethnic cleansing"

Federal choices needed

The threat of sectarianism

Sedition in Iraq


Almost a week after the Samaraa shrine bombings which unleashed a wave of sectarian violence that threatened to take Iraq to the brink of civil war the situation remains, in the words of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, "volatile, serious and sensitive".

A three-day curfew, coupled with calls for unity, joint prayers and national reconciliation, may have saved Iraq for now but few believe that in the absence real commitment to national unity the country will not find itself, once again, on the brink.

The official death toll from revenge attacks that followed the Samaraa bombing has reached 449. On Tuesday alone five blasts claimed the lives of 70 people. The same day witnessed an emerging consensus among political leaders that only a national unity government will be able to tackle the sectarian violence. Talks on forming that government are due to resume by the beginning of next week.

Their possibility of success, though, is hampered by the strained relations between the president and his prime minister. Talabani publicly criticised Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari for failing to notify the government of his recent visit to Turkey and added in a statement that Iraq will not be bound to any of the agreements Jaafari signed with Turkish officials.

This development coincided with a report, published in the London-based Ashraq Al-Awsat on Wednesday, revealing the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the main Shia bloc in government, "knew beforehand about security loopholes and that guards at the Samaraa shrine had been infiltrated". The report, allegedly produced by the Ministry of National Security Affairs headed by Abdel-Karim Al-Anzy, from Jaafari's own Dawa Party, said the government had monitored attempts by "terrorist groups to bomb the shrine but did nothing to prevent the attacks". Government officials, according to the paper, neither confirmed nor denied the report's findings.

The bombing, and the violence that followed, has laid bare the failings of the political process in Iraq and the incompetence of its political class. As the third anniversary of the invasion is commemorated next month more and more Iraqis feel that the time has come to abandon a process that has patently failed and left the country prey to sectarian violence.

"I think all Iraqis agree that after three years of occupation we can fairly say that the project the US occupation brought to Iraq has failed miserably and that those who came in US tanks have not acted according to Iraq's national interests," said Sheikh Ayash Al-Kobeissi, representative of the Muslim Scholars Association Abroad.

He believes that the Samaraa bombing and the sectarian conflicts that followed are an extension of the politicians' own sectarian discourse.

"There is no sectarian problem in Iraq as such," he said. "What there is are people with skewed political agendas -- some of them linked to regional powers -- who use sectarian language and populist discourse as a way of rallying support in the street."

Veteran Iraqi politician Adnan Bachachi agreed, saying people were losing confidence in the political class, and couldn't be blamed for doing so.

Talabani and other Iraqi officials are not oblivious to the fact that the timing of the bombing was intended to hit at the heart of the political process by derailing efforts to form a new government. Many were fearful that the bombing would put the process back to square one, fears that were consolidated when the largest Sunni bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, briefly suspended talks on forming the new government.

"The most important thing is to form a unity government as soon as possible," Iyad Al-Samarai, spokesperson of the Iraqi Islamic Party and a member of the Sunni front told Al-Ahram Weekly on Tuesday. "Only a responsible and credible government will save Iraq from descending into chaos."

Statements like Samarai's reflect a determination of some of Iraq's Sunnis to remain part of the political process.

Negotiations will face two major stumbling blocks -- the issue of who controls the security ministries and what is to be done with the militias.

The fact that the post-bombing rampage was carried out mostly by Al-Mahdi army -- commonly known in Iraq as gunmen in black -- as well as Interior Ministry-sponsored death squads underlines the urgent need to settle the fate of such groups, disband them and purge their members from security apparatuses. But rumours that infiltrators in Al-Mahdi army had committed atrocities against Sunnis have fuelled concern that the young Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr might not be in full control of the militia, which begs many questions over who could actually disarm them.

And following the targeting of Samaraa's holy sites it is difficult to see the first hurdle -- control of the security ministries -- being negotiated, since the Shia bloc will be far from willing to relinquish control. This is likely to place them on a collision course with Sunni parties that have long demanded that the militia-infiltrated security services be handed to neutral forces.

"There is consensus," says Al-Samarai, "even within the ranks of the UIA that the Interior Ministry needs reform. We all agree that Baathists have no place there but neither should the criminals and the militiamen who have no sense of discipline or professionalism."

Setting a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops will also be high on the negotiating agenda.

The argument that Iraq will descend into all out war should foreign troops withdraw is often repeated in the Western press. But from the chants and protests voiced during demonstrations in Iraq this week it seems clear that many Iraqis hold the occupation troops responsible for the chaos that has descended on their country.

"Iraq has become the battlefield where the Iranians and the Americans settle their scores," Sawsan Assaf, a political scientist at Baghdad University, told the Weekly.

Samarai concurs. "Whether a civil war happens in Iraq will be determined by regional agendas and not Iraqi ones," he said.

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