BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The violence sweeping Iraq -- whether it is
sectarian-based or carried out by insurgents -- is all, in
the end, part of the same war. Its aim: to determine who
will control the country now that Saddam Hussein is gone.
That fact, often overlooked as outsiders struggle to
comprehend the violence, is key to understanding how the
fighting has changed in the three years since the U.S.
Call it sectarian violence, civil war or insurgency. It is a
battle for the future of Iraq.
Sometimes these days, the battles are fought between
Americans and Sunni Arab gunmen in Ramadi or in the bleak
wastelands of western Anbar province.
Other times, the battlefield -- a market ripped apart by a
car bomb, or a raid on a business that kills the workers --
is between Shiites who now control the government and Sunni
extremists unhappy about that.
But the goal is always the same. And the conflict will
likely continue until Iraq's ethnic and religious
communities determine how to share the nation's wealth and
Any establishment of a broad-based government of national
unity -- including Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds -- would
be only the beginning of that process.
In the first years after the 2003 invasion, the focus was
mostly on the insurgents: Sunni Arabs unhappy with the U.S.
presence in Iraq and worried the Americans would put in
place a Shiite government.
Once the Shiites actually took power -- first provisionally
in April and then formally after winning a vote in December
-- Sunni Arab militants focused their attention on Shiites,
and each viewed the other as the greatest threat.
Last month, at least 1,038 civilians were killed in
war-related violence, according to an Associated Press count.
By contrast, the U.S. military death toll for March stood at
31 -- the lowest monthly total since February 2004.
Politics has become an extension of that communal conflict
with nearly all parties organized along religious or ethnic
Sunni politicians in suits and Sunni extremists with guns
share a common goal -- to prevent the establishment of a
Shiite-dominated state. Their Shiite counterparts zealously
oppose any move that threatens to restore rule by the Sunni
The U.S. military is caught in the middle -- targeted by
extremists of both sides. If the Americans leave, the power
struggle will continue -- either in the halls of parliament
or among armed bands on the streets of Baghdad.
Talk of an eventual U.S. pullout fuels the struggle, adding
new urgency as the combatants stake out their positions.
Even before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Arab leaders had
been warning that ethnic and sectarian tensions in Iraq
could explode without Saddam.
The invasion destroyed a power system in place for decades,
with Sunni Arabs as the favored community although they
constituted only about 20 percent of the population.
With their patron Saddam gone, Sunnis feared domination by
the long suppressed Shiites, 60 percent of Iraq's 27 million
people. Kurds were eager to maintain the self rule they
enjoyed in the north since 1991 and expand their territory
to include the oil-rich area around Kirkuk.
Saddam loyalists and religious extremists, including
al-Qaida in Iraq and its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,
exploited those Sunni fears to organize resistance in 2003.
Al-Zarqawi's contempt for Shiites as "heretics" made it all
the easier to attack a community that Sunni militants
considered collaborators with the Americans and proxies for
their traditional enemy, Shiite-dominated Iran.
By contrast, the Shiites largely shunned the insurgency
because their clerical leadership decided that cooperation
with the U.S.-led coalition offered the best way for them to
realize their own dreams of power. Shiite militants led by
the anti-U.S. firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr drew back
under pressure from mainstream clerics.
That prevented the insurgency from spreading beyond the
Sunni Arab heartland into a nationwide uprising, enabling
the Bush administration to say that Iraq was generally
peaceful except for Baghdad and a handful of provinces with
large Sunni populations.
But it did not settle the power struggle.
Many Shiites and Kurds responded to
American calls and joined the army and
the police -- pitting them against
insurgents who were mostly Sunnis.
Sectarian battle lines were drawn.
Sunni extremists target Shiite civilians
because they are considered
collaborators with the Americans. Shiite
extremists go after Sunni civilians
because they are deemed insurgent
Democratic elections have sharpened the
After months of resistance, the
Americans bowed to pressure from the
Shiite clergy, led by Grand Ayatollah
Ali al-Sistani, and agreed to hold the
first national elections in January
Privately, the Americans were reluctant
to have elections so soon after Saddam's
fall and with an armed insurgency raging.
Elections soon after the end of the
Bosnian war handed power to the same
factions that had dragged the country
into the conflict years before.
But al-Sistani was adamant, and defying
him risked a backlash among Shiites and
Sunnis largely boycotted the ballot to
protest the U.S. military presence. The
result was a parliament and government
dominated by Shiites and Kurds, with
Sunni leaders realized the boycott was a
mistake and encouraged their followers
to vote in the October referendum on the
constitution and the December parliament
election. Sunni parties boosted their
representation in the new parliament
But the damage was done.
Robert H. Reid is correspondent at large
for The Associated Press and has
reported frequently from Baghdad since