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IRAQ: NO QUESTION OF CIVIL WAR
by Amir Taheri
Arab News
March 4, 2006

Over the past two weeks I have been much in demand as far as radio and television programs are concerned. For the nth time since the war in Iraq in 2003 I have been bombarded with invitations to talk-shows based on the assumption that Iraq is either on the verge of or, already, in the midst of a civil war.

In the end, however, none of those invitations led to any programming for a simple reason: I did not think that Iraq was on the verge of civil war let alone in the midst of it as some commentators suggested.

But wasn't the destruction of the golden-domed Askari mosque in Samarra "the tipping point", a British radio editor wanted to know.

The mausoleum-cum-mosque was presented in much of the Western media as "one of the most ancient holy sites of Islam." The fact is the mosque in question, far from being "one of the most ancient", was built in the 1880s after having laid in ruins for almost seven decades.

This was not the first time that the mosque was being destroyed by radicals who regard such structures as anathematic. In 1802 an army invaded Mesopotamia, as Iraq was then known, and razed its Shiite shrines in Najaf, Karbala, Kazemayn, and Samarra to the ground. (The same ideology led to the destruction of the statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, more than four years ago.)

It was not until the last decade of the 19th century that the shrines were fully rebuilt, largely thanks to donations from the Qajar kings and Persian merchants.

The outrage at Samarra did, as might have been expected, trigger the most violent sectarian violence that Iraq has experienced since the war. In the week that followed Samarra, over 100 Shiite and Sunni mosques were ransacked or set on fire, according to most conservative estimates, while number of people killed in sectarian violence topped 400.

Sectarian violence, however, should not be confused with civil war. Many, multireligious states suffer from that particular affliction without sliding into civil war. In Pakistan, for example, over 1000 people are killed in sectarian feuds each year. In the latest major instance of sectarian violence in India in 2002 more than 20,000 people perished. No one knows the exact number of victims of similar violence in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines not to mention Nigeria where sectarian feuds, mostly between Muslims and Christians, may have claimed more than 100,000 lives over the past decade alone.

There is no doubt that Iraq is passing through an exceptionally rough period in its postwar history, due to three reasons.

The first is the growing desperation of the terrorist groups that, having failed to sabotage the political process and keep the Arab Sunnis out of the last general election, have decided on what could be their last throw of the dice.

This is clear from one of the latest message they have circulated in and around Iraq calling on "the believers" to "do the ultimate in sacrifice" to prevent the "imposition of the American design in the Land of the Two Rivers."

I witnessed a similar sense of desperation on the part of the radicals in Algeria in the period 1995-97. They had done all they could to prevent presidential and parliamentary elections but had failed. In the hope of putting the clock back they also went for the last throw of the dice tactic. Within just 18 months they destroyed over 800 municipal buildings, factories, schools, and mosques, and pushed their throat-slitting frenzy to new heights of perfidy. They also tried to foment an ethnic war between the Kabyle minority and the Arabized majority. Nevertheless, they failed to reverse a new political process that aimed at creating a multiparty political system with reasonably clean elections.

The terrorist desperation in Iraq is producing another effect in the shape of would be-suicide-martyrs leaving the country to pursue their campaign in their original homelands. According to Arab sources, dozens of returning terrorists have been arrested when trying to cross into Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the past few weeks.

The second reason why tension has risen in Iraq in recent weeks is the clear decision by the Islamic Republic in Tehran and its various regional clients, including the many branches of the Hezbollah movement, to "send a message to Washington."

The so-called "message" was put by Hassan Abbasi, who is known as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "strategic guru" and described by his friends as "the Kissinger of Islam."

In a speech at the Imam Hussein University in Tehran on Feb. 8 he had this to say:

If "the satanic powers of the West" do not stop pressuring Iran on its nuclear program they should not be surprised to face "payback in Iraq and elsewhere."

That this was no empty threat is borne out by the fact that many of the recent anti-Sunni attacks in both Baghdad and the south bear the clear imprint of Moqtada Sadr's militia, known as the Mehdi Army.

But the third, and the most important, reason for the recent upsurge in tension is the failure of the new Iraqi leadership elite to set internal feuds aside and mobilize the nation's energies for speedier political and economic reconstruction.

The failure of the Shiite alliance, the largest bloc in the new Parliament, to agree on a new candidate for the premiership, and the virtual disintegration of the interim government of Premier Ibrahim Al-Jaafari have cast a long shadow on the new leadership elite.

The result is already felt in a slowdown in economic activity and reconstruction and a sharp fall in Iraq's oil exports, largely due to political quarrels and managerial ineptitude.

But does all that mean that Iraq is going to the dogs as some Saddam Hussein nostalgics hope? The answer is a firm: No.

Iraq is not yet out of the woods. There could be more destruction of mosques and shrines with or without golden domes. (There are an estimated 18,500 "holy places" and mosques in Iraq, which means plenty of targets for those hoping to capture American TV headlines.) There could also be many more instances of spectacular killings, largely through suicide attacks. The Iraqi scene could be further heated up as the moment of the United Nations' double confrontation with Iran and Syria approaches.

But the new course Iraq has taken away from despotic rule and toward democracy cannot be reversed. Those who look of civil war had better look elsewhere as the overwhelming majority of the Iraqis remain determined not to walk into the trap laid by the terrorists.

As always the real battle for Iraq is taking place outside that country, especially in the United States and Britain. As long as there are steady hands there this ship will not be blown off course by any storm that the terrorists or others could conjure.

 

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