Attacks, Sectarian Strife Part of 1 War

Associated Press Writer

April 10, 2006, 2:43 PM EDT

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. invasion.
<A HREF=",685,687,1093,1345,2168,2254,2776,3379,4294,4375,4538,6207,52529,52564,52641,54254,54255,54522,54523,55486,55497,55631,55883,55916,55940,56384,56615,56660,56789,56859,56971,56972,57084&Targets=59930,50790,58299,58935,58264,57003,51704,9393,57001,1360,56800,59341,58239,58846,58907,59026,59280,59472,59606,59821,2811,56000,56069,58652,58269&Values=31,43,51,60,72,82,91,100,110,150,289,301,328,351,395,583,591,593,834,903,998,1016,1051,1065,1066,1089,1091,1093,1105,1112,1136,1191,1212,1260,1263,1272,1282,1309,1604,1606,1617,1646,1648,1653,1654,1656,1664,1681,1732,1733,1737,1745,1748,1754,1758,1786,1787,1788,1836,1837,1838,1863,1864,1870,1871,1882,1890,1892,1917,1956,1957,1977,1985,1986,2011,2017,2035,2036,2044,2106,2161,2274,2281,2283,2297,2366,2377,2380,2548,2719,2765,2782,2804,2805,2806,2837,2838,2861,2863,2915,2938,2948,2972,3005,3023,3024,3047,3051,3055,3058,3061,3065,3070,3086,3088,3103,3113,3117,3153,3215,3238,3242,3257,3258,3286,3331,3333,3433,3437,3442,3445,3467,3469&RawValues=USERAGENTID%2CMozilla/4.0%2520(compatible%253B%2520MSIE%25206.0%253B%2520Windows%2520NT%25205.1%253B%2520SV1)%2CTID%2C3cpr0ad123np0t&Redirect=" target="_top"><IMG SRC="" WIDTH=300 HEIGHT=250 BORDER=0></A>
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 power.

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 lines.

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 minority.

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 sympathizers.

Democratic elections have sharpened the sectarian conflict.

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 2005.

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 spreading resistance.

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 Sunnis marginalized.

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 threefold.

But the damage was done.

Robert H. Reid is correspondent at large for The Associated Press and has reported frequently from Baghdad since 2003.