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Age-old hostilities boil over

Iraq gets a frightening look at what civil war might look like

Editor's note: The following is a summary of this week's Time magazine cover story.

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U.S. hopes of averting an ignominious defeat in Iraq hinge on whether it can bring the fighting to an end.

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(Time.comexternal link) In spite of the Bush administration's continued calls to end the sectarian violence that has torn through Iraq since the explosion of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, another wave of killings shook the country today, spreading the dread of civil war like brush fire among both Sunnis and Shiites who are already on edge.

Iraqis like Isam al-Rawi, a Baghdad University geology professor and Sunni politician, have kept their guns close and loaded. "I have to be ready for anything," he says. For him, the decapitation of the mosque in Samarra was an omen of doom. "I said to myself, 'This is it. The Shiites are going to go mad. This is the start of the civil war.'"

Such dire predictions have been made before and proved wrong. But this time Iraq got a very real, very frightening glimpse of what war with itself might look like. After four days of violence, more than 200 people were killed, and Sunni groups claimed at least 100 mosques were damaged.

The extent of the carnage left many with the uneasy sense that the long-simmering hostility between the country's two main sects has at last boiled over -- and that the fragile, feckless institutions of authority in Iraq have no means of holding the anger back. "This was the worst-case scenario we all hoped would never happen," said a Western adviser to the Iraqi government. "We've always known that when the Shiites ran out of patience, Iraq would run out of political options."

In private, U.S. officials sounded guarded. "This is plainly a test for the Iraqi government," says a well-placed national-security official. "What the outcome will be is not entirely clear." A U.S. anti-insurgency official in Baghdad was even more blunt: "It looks like all hell is about to break loose here."

However shocking in scale and ferocity, the eruption of sectarian violence last week was not totally unexpected.

For months, hundreds of bodies have been turning up in streets, ditches and sewers in and around Baghdad -- most of them bearing unmistakable signs of military-style execution. Almost all the dead are Sunni males, many of whom had been arrested by men wearing police uniforms. Sunni politicians have long blamed those deaths on Shiite death squads operating within Iraqi police and security forces. U.S. officials now privately concede that the death squads may indeed exist.

In response to mounting allegations that Shiite militants were carrying out atrocities against Sunnis with the knowledge, if not the support, of the Shiite-run Interior Ministry, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad last week threatened to block U.S. funding to Iraq if the new government didn't turn away from sectarianism. "We are not going to invest the resources of the American people to build forces run by people who are sectarian."

Although the recent violence has been sparked by a single act of provocation, it comes in the context of a history of Shiite-Sunni enmity. The roots of the sectarian divide lie in a schism that arose shortly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. Under Saddam Hussein, communal hostilities in Iraq were suppressed, their very existence denied. Beneath the surface, though, relations between the two sects have always been tainted by prejudice and discrimination.

Now, given the failure to head off last week's conflagration, U.S. hopes of averting an ignominious defeat in Iraq hinge on whether it can bring the fighting to an end.

The biggest fear is that the breakdown of order could draw neighboring countries into the conflict, with Iran intervening on behalf of the Shiites and Arab states supporting the Sunnis.

Some U.S. military officers say privately that the turmoil has vindicated their insistence that it's premature to turn over security duties to the Iraqis. "This week's events support our caution and unwillingness to pull out troops too quickly," says a senior military officer. "The civilian leadership wants us to move faster, faster, but it's a little bit of 'We told you so.'"

Click hereexternal link for the entire cover story on Time.



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