Since the US declared its war in Iraq over, the everyday violence has been directed against police, coalition troops or civilians. The clear aim of the insurgents has been to cause the maximum amount of disruption. But last month’s bombing of the Golden Temple, a Shia shrine at Samarra was a different kind of attack. It has sparked a series of reprisals that threaten to derail delicate negotiations for a new Iraqi government.
Iraq has always been divided into dozens of ethnic and religious factions. Most people are either Kurds, Shi’ite, or Sunni muslims. After the attack in Samarra, several Sunni mosques were set on fire in Baghdad, especially around the hardline Shi’ite district of Sadr City. Aside from the wilful destruction of mosques, there have been a string of kidnappings, killings and other forms of revenge. The number of dead remains uncertain, but it is widely thought to be in the hundreds. But the US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, does not believe Iraq is descending into civil war. “I don’t believe they are in a civil war today. There has always been a potential for a civil war. That country was held together through a repressive regime that put hundreds of thousands of human beings into mass graves,” he said. The US hoped that last year’s votes on Iraq’s constitution and the subsequent legislative elections would spell the beginning of the end of violence. But the political process remains blocked by internal wrangling. Jalal Talabani has been widely touted as the man who can achieve a balance between the main factions but he has to contend with massive internal divisions. The main parties cannot agree on the choice by the Shia bloc of Ibrahim al-Jaafari as premier, who’s bidding for a second mandate. He has been under fire from Sunni groups who say he has failed to bring security or prosperity during the year in which he has been interim prime minister. They also accuse him of being too closely linked to Moqtada al-Sadr, the powerful radical cleric who has a record of urging his followers to back the insurgency that attacks US forces.