Disaster looms in Iraq
With deadly sectarian attacks on the rise in Iraq and political upheaval worsening, what else will be necessary to reignite civil war, asks Salah Nasrawi
A wave of terrifying attacks has hit Baghdad and other Iraqi cities over recent days, killing and wounding hundreds of the country's Shias, in a sign of escalating violence that is likely to aggravate already high sectarian tensions because of a governmental crisis.
Officials of Iraq's Shia-led government have accused Sunni insurgents of being behind the string of blasts, which have targeted pilgrims commemorating a Shia anniversary.
US and Iraqi officials had earlier warned of a likely resurgence of Sunni and Shia militants and an increase in violence after the US withdrew the last of its combat troops from the country in December.
An Al-Qaeda group in Iraq has claimed responsibility for several of the blasts, including one that killed 78 people last Thursday which it said was meant to avenge a crackdown on Sunnis led by the country's Shia-led government.
The coordinated attacks, using roadside explosives, sticky bombs, booby trapped motorcycles and assaults by gunmen, took place in various Shia neighbourhoods, killing and wounding dozens.
At least 45 people were killed in a suicide attack on the outskirts of the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah, as Shia pilgrims were marching to the holy city of Karbala for a religious commemoration.
The latest wave of bombings was the first major set of attacks since US troops completed their full withdrawal from Iraq last month, increasing doubts about the ability of the Iraqi security forces to protect the country.
The attacks also indicate a resurge in the Sunni-based insurgency that killed thousands of Shias during the sectarian civil war that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, toppling the Sunni-dominated regime led by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Former ruling Baath Party loyalists and militant Islamist elements made up the main factions of the insurgency, which they said they were waging in order to drive occupying American forces out of Iraq.
However, now Sunni insurgent groups say that they are once again stepping up the fighting, this time to topple the Shia-led government installed by the Americans after the 2003 invasion.
In a statement on Sunday, the leader of the Islamic Army of Iraq, a Sunni group, said that "our heroes who defeated the empire of evil [America] are capable of defeating their stooges [the Iraqi government]."
Two other Sunni militant groups, the Army of Mujahideen and the Naqshabandiya Sect Army, believed to be backed by former Saddam deputy Ezzat Ibrahim, also pledged to escalate the conflict.
Ansar Al-Islam, another Sunni group based in the northern Kurdish region of Iraq before the US invasion, also announced on Sunday that it had named a new leader and vowed to step up the conflict.
As the country's political stand-off deepens, with both the Iraqi parliament and the national power-sharing government having been paralysed by a Sunni boycott, calls for regional autonomy and even partitioning the country have raised the possibility of further political deterioration.
The present crisis was largely sparked by government orders to arrest Iraq's Sunni vice-president, Tariq Al-Hashemi, on terrorism charges and a request by Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki, a Shia, to fire his Sunni deputy Saleh Al-Mutleq on the grounds of negligence of duty.
The moves raised concerns among many Sunnis that the Shias were trying to marginalise them and consolidate their power now that the Americans have withdrawn from the country and the Shia-led government is in charge of the country's army and security forces.
Iraqi Sunnis are also worried that the country's Shia-led government has allied itself too closely with neighbouring Iran, a historical enemy of Sunni Arabs.
Meanwhile, Shias in Iraq are haunted by the spectre of an alliance linking the country's Sunnis with Sunni neighbours in Turkey and the Arab countries.
Consequently, an ever-greater Shia-Sunni schism has opened up within Iraq, with the current rise in sectarian violence threatening to debilitate both sects and drive them to extremes.
The recent attacks are a stark reminder of how political bigotry, greed for power and extremism could work together to widen the Shia-Sunni gulf and bring Iraq ever-closer to the brink.
Whereas the Shias want to guarantee their power in the country's government, the Sunnis are increasingly challenging what they perceive as a US-orchestrated political process that has sidelined the Sunnis.
Some analysts have suggested that by targeting Shias, the Sunni insurgent groups are trying to provoke a sectarian backlash that will wreck the Shia-led power-sharing formula presently determining the government of Iraq.
Al-Qaeda, such analysts note, has even broader goals, such as overturning the Shia-led government and establishing a Sunni-led Islamic state in Iraq that could have expansionist ambitions in the region.
However, other analysts say that the Sunni insurgent groups have been weakened by American and Iraqi counter-terrorism efforts and that they are not now able to topple the Shia-led government.
Yet, as the spate of recent attacks shows, the insurgents nevertheless remain active, raising fears that the sectarian civil war that many had predicted following the US departure from Iraq is drawing nearer.
The good news is that Sunni political groups have not sanctioned the recent attacks, and mainstream Iraqi Sunnis have not showed any sign that they intend to wage a fully-fledged armed struggle to oust the Shias.
The bad news is that the leaders of the two communities have continued to play a game of brinkmanship at a time when new dangers and crises are rapidly occurring.
While the Shia-led government is reluctant to make concessions on power-sharing or to halt its crackdown on Sunni militants, the Sunnis show no signs of renouncing the insurgency campaign or of ridding their areas of extremists.
Both sides are also eyeing the turmoil in neighbouring Syria, which is descending into civilian strife along sectarian lines and has the potential to turn into a larger regional conflict pitting Iraq's Shias and Sunnis against each other.
The grim picture now emerging from Iraq is that of a country seeming to be heading towards the same sectarian logic that triggered the 2006-2007 civil war.
Al-Maliki, who has one million soldiers under his command, seems unabashed in wielding power and asserting control over the country.
Sunni politicians, meanwhile, continue to boycott the Iraqi parliament and the government in the hope that they can make Al-Maliki yield and allow them a larger say in policy making.
As Iraqis' worst fears increasingly show signs of coming true, many can now only hope that the country's leaders will meet in the kind of "national conference" proposed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in order to try to halt the slide towards another and perhaps even bloodier round of sectarian strife.