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Iraq Transition

Iraq study: Warning over civil war

Group calls for changes to new Iraqi constitution



• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide



BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- A timely analysis of Iraq's sectarian divisions has found the country's leaders still have time to reach "a genuine national compact" that will defuse the seething Shiite-Sunni tensions in the country, now reeling after last week's bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra.

The study is by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an influential non-governmental group dedicated to finding solutions to conflicts across the globe.

"Iraqi political actors and the international community must act urgently to prevent a low-intensity conflict from escalating into an all-out civil war that could lead to Iraq's disintegration and destabilize the entire region," the document says.

The ICG report calls for changes to the constitution Iraqi voters adopted in October that would foster the inclusion of Sunni Arabs, who dominated the country under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

It warns against provisions that allow for the creation of a Shiite autonomous region in southern Iraq and calls for "establishing administrative federalism on the basis of provincial boundaries" outside the longstanding autonomous Kurdish region.

The Sunni heartland in north-central and western Iraq does not have the oil wealth found in the Shiite lands in southern Iraq and the Kurdish region in the north, so the report calls for a fair distribution of Iraq's oil wealth and the creation of an independent agency to prevent corruption.

The report urges the United States to continue to push for national unity, promote a constitution that ensures inclusiveness to all and help build up Iraq's security forces. Any U.S. troop withdrawals should be "gradual" and must take into account the country's progress in politics and developing indigenous troops.

"Although U.S. and allied troops are more part of the problem than they can ever be part of its solution, for now they are preventing -- by their very presence and military muscle -- ethnic and sectarian violence from spiraling out of control," it states.

The report's recommendations have taken on an air of urgency since Wednesday's bombing of the al-Askariya Mosque in Samarra, one of Shiite Islam's top holy sites. The attack sparked a wave of bloodshed that had left more than 200 dead by Sunday.

The Sunni-Shiite hatred that boiled over after last week's bombing and reprisals against Sunnis had percolated over last year, with Sunni insurgents attacking Shiites and "certain government commando units carrying out reprisals against Sunni Arabs, in whose midst the insurgency continues to thrive."

The study urges the parliamentary election winners to condemn sectarian attacks, put together a national unity government, change controversial aspects of the constitution and disband militias. They also are urged to promote non-sectarian and professional security forces and fair de-Baathification, judging "former Baath party members on the basis of crimes committed, not political beliefs or religious convictions."

But it warned the international community to be prepared for the possibility that Iraq will break apart, "so as to contain the inevitable fallout on regional stability and security."

"Such an effort has been a taboo, but failure to anticipate such a possibility may lead to further disasters in the future," the ICG warned.

Iraq -- with its large populations of Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, Kurds and others -- has always had sectarian tension. But the study said "2005 will be remembered as the year Iraq's latent sectarianism took wings, permeating the political discourse and precipitating incidents of appalling violence and sectarian cleansing."

"Over the past year, social and political tensions evident since the removal of the Baathist regime have turned into deep rifts. Iraq's mosaic of communities has begun to fragment along ethnic, confessional and tribal lines, bringing instability and violence to many areas, especially those with mixed populations," the report states.

It quotes an Iraqi official as saying that before 2005, "sectarian violence was a sleeping volcano. Now it has erupted and the question is whether it has gone out of control and how much damage it will do."

The study said the transitional national assembly elections in January 2005 and the December parliamentary elections brought religion squarely into the political sphere, "perhaps the most significant development" since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Hussein in 2003.

"With mosques turned into party headquarters and clerics outfitting themselves as politicians, Iraqis searching for leadership and stability in profoundly uncertain times essentially turned the elections into confessional exercises," the report found.

The top winners of the December election for the 275-member Council of Representatives were the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdish alliance, which came in one-two as they had in the January 2005 elections for a transitional government.

The report said Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the influential Shiite cleric, had played a positive role in urging restraint against violence, but his influence appeared to be waning.

And it quotes Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, as saying, "We should do everything in our power to protect him. He is our insurance policy against civil war."

The report bemoans the lack of secular political alternatives in Iraq, noting that non-religious lists found few voters in December's elections.

"If there is still a mass of secular Iraqis, unorganized and disaffected with the politics of the new order, it has yet to find a political voice," the report found.

The ICG urges the United States to engage Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, to help promote stability. It calls on Iraq's neighbors to back Iraq's territorial integrity, a national-unity government and a halt to the flow of insurgents into Iraq.

Iran, a Persian Shiite country with allies in Iraq's leadership, "seems content to maintain the status quo, including the continued presence of U.S. forces" and a unified Iraq.

"However, Tehran's calculation may change. Should the nuclear question come to a head and force international intervention of some kind (including sanctions), the regime may want to fight the U.S. where it is most vulnerable -- namely in Iraq."

Iran, the European Union and the United States are currently in a diplomatic standoff over Tehran's nuclear program, which the United States says is aimed at developing nuclear weapons -- an allegation Iranian officials deny.

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