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Civilian killings, unending violence appear unstoppable
San Francisco Chronicle


July 19, 2006

When Iraq's new unity government was installed two months ago, hopes rose that the sectarian violence tearing the country apart would end.

When Iraq's most-wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed last month and Iraq's new leaders quickly followed up with a plan for national reconciliation, hopes rose that the insurgents would lay down their arms and join the political process.

And when all of that failed to stop the bloodshed, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a security crackdown in Baghdad, which included 50,000 Iraqi police and troops manning checkpoints and patrolling the streets.




None of it has worked.

At least 695 Iraqis have been killed this month in sectarian or insurgent-related violence, according to the Associated Press. Just this week, more than 120 people were killed in spectacularly gruesome examples of Sunni-Shiite violence. On Tuesday, a suicide bomber lured day laborers into his van in Kufa, a Shiite holy city south of Baghdad, and then blew up the van on a busy street, killing at least 53 people.

"Iraqis had hoped for good news when al-Maliki formed his Cabinet," the government-owned newspaper Al-Sabah said in an editorial this week. "We regret to say all we have is bad news."

That bad news was further confirmed by a U.N. report on Tuesday, which said nearly 6,000 civilians had been killed in sectarian violence in May and June, the highest two-month tally of violent deaths since Baghdad fell more than three years ago.

"We're looking at a pretty intense situation, in which a lot of people are being killed for a lot of different reasons, and there doesn't seem to be any prospect of peace," said Jeffrey White, an expert on Iraq and security affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The extent to which violence is spiraling out of control was illustrated by the Monday massacre in Mahmoudiya, where Sunni gunmen rained bullets at mostly Shiite shoppers in the market and then lobbed rocket-propelled grenades into the panicked crowd, killing 50. That atrocity came eight days after Shiite gunmen set up checkpoints in the mostly Sunni Baghdad neighborhood of al-Jihad and killed at least 42 people, pulling some of them from their houses and cars to shoot them in cold blood.

Iraqi and U.S. efforts to stop the unending violence have clearly failed, despite the growth of Iraq's new security forces, which number 268,400 this month, according to the latest figures compiled by the Brookings Institution's Iraq Index.

But while the Bush administration has pointed to the growth as a sign of progress, both U.S. commanders on the ground and Iraqi government officials have acknowledged that sectarian militias - mostly Shiite, but also Sunni - have infiltrated the nascent forces, which have been rebuilt from scratch since the U.S. occupation authority disbanded Saddam Hussein's military in 2003.

"The first thing is to create a real security force that responds to the national government ... as opposed to the Shiite leaders or the Sunni leader," said Michael Sterner, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. "You have to give them as much motivation as the militias do. Otherwise it's never gonna happen."

Nonetheless, the U.S.-led coalition is gradually handing over swaths of Iraq, even parts of Baghdad, to Iraqi control - at the same time as the senior commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, recently said he might add more U.S. soldiers to try to tamp down the violence in Baghdad.

But so low is the trust in the Iraqi forces' abilities in some regions that the governor and police chief of the generally peaceful southern province of Muthanna stepped down two weeks ago after British and Australian forces announced they were transferring authority to Iraqis. The two officials cited the deteriorating security situation.

But more than just a reliable security force needs to be in place to break what Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called "a very large amount of momentum behind civil conflict and civil tension."

Is there any way out of what some observers are starting to predict is the disintegration of the country?

According to White, the Iraq expert, there needs to be a "national, strategic agreement between the major groups on what the future of Iraq should be and how power and resources should be distributed."

White and other analysts say Iraq's Constitution hands over too many of the country's lucrative resources to Kurds and Shiites, essentially shutting out disenchanted Sunnis, who form the backbone of the insurgency.

Without a greater sense of inclusiveness and nationhood, said White, "there isn't really a prospect for a coming together on a national level and a broad agreement on how to solve problems."


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