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Sunni call for deal to avert civil war in Iraq
Mail and Guardian
February 26, 2006

Iraq's leading Sunni political bloc said on Saturday it will rejoin talks to form a government of national unity if the Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, follows through on measures designed to banish the prospect of religious war between Shi'ite and Sunni communities.

It was a rare ray of hope in an otherwise grim week that saw the destruction of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest shrines. A wave of protests by angry Shi'ite and reprisal attacks by militiamen against Sunni civilians, political parties and mosques killed more than 200 people.

After a brief lull on Friday, when the country's imams appealed for calm and urged Muslim unity, the violence was ratcheted up again on Saturday with car bombs, gun battles and execution-style killings that left at least 60 people dead and wounded many more.

In the capital, at least three Sunni mosques were attacked. On the previous night, two rockets were fired at a Shi'ite mosque in Tuz Khurmatu, north of the capital.

A gun battle broke out outside the home of Harith al-Dari, leader of the conservative Sunni Muslim Clerics' Association, who proclaimed via a phone call live on television that "civil war was being waged by one side". A funeral procession for Atwar Bahjat, the al-Arabiya TV correspondent who was murdered along with two colleagues in Samarra last week, was raked with gunfire, leaving at least three people dead, police said.

There was also the discovery overnight of the bodies of 14 police commandos. They were found near a Sunni mosque on the outskirts of Baghdad after a fierce battle with gunmen who were, according to the police, wearing the black uniforms of Shi'ite militias.

Members of the al-Mahdi militia, loyal to the firebrand Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have been blamed for much of the fighting last week, despite orders from al-Sadr to stop.

On the second day of a curfew in the capital and three surrounding provinces, the Iraqi Defence Minister, Saadoun al-Dulaimi, said he is ready to put tanks on the streets to avert a "civil war" that "will never end".

However, a Western diplomat in Iraq, who spoke on condition of anonymity, warned: "With much of the current violence being perpetrated by Shi'ite militiamen, many of whom have also joined the ranks of the new security forces, the effectiveness and neutrality of the police and army in any escalation remain to be tested."

The fledgling Iraqi army has only a few tanks, but United States forces were reported to be "standing by". Until now American troops have not wanted to be seen to be taking one side or the other.

With long-simmering sectarian hostilities boiling over, Iraq's political and religious elite have engaged in bouts of mutual blame and recrimination that only served to deepen the crisis, said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group. He said that a full-scale civil war "had yet to break out", but warned that "all the dynamics were pointing in that direction".

On Friday, al-Jaafari, whose lacklustre administration came in for heavy criticism last week, promised a series of steps designed to bolster security and rebuild the Samarra shrine as well as the scores of Sunni mosques that were damaged during the violence.

The Iraqi Accord Front said on Saturday that it "would not hesitate to reconsider" its decision last week to pull out of American-backed talks aimed at forming a broad-based government, so long as "the front's legitimate demands are met ... and the concerns of the Sunni Arab community in the sectarian crisis are addressed".

The front has demanded an official apology from the ruling Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance, compensation for damaged Sunni mosques, and the arrest and punishment of those who attacked Sunni targets.

The apparent breakthrough came after intensive efforts by the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and senior United Nations envoy Ashraf Qazi to restore momentum to a political process that had all but stalled.

The main Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni blocks are struggling to find common ground over issues such as federalism and control of the country's security structures. Forming a government of national unity that is able to guard Iraq's borders and apply the rule of law is a vital cog in the mechanism of the Americans' declared exit strategy.

Even before last week's turmoil, insurgent attacks were running at record levels. A US Defence Department report released last week said that 550 attacks occurred in the four-month period between August 29 2005 and January 20 2006 -- a post-war high. Eighty percent of those attacks targeted coalition forces, but three-quarters of the casualties were Iraqis.

The vast majority (83%) of attacks took place in four of Iraq's 18 provinces -- Baghdad, Anbar, Nineveh and Salaheddin, the report said. -- Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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