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Divided Iraq faces all-out civil war

By Colin Freeman and Aqeel Hussein in Baghdad
(Filed: 16/01/2005)

In a land where almost everyone has a horror story to tell, Jassem Aziz's experience of Sunni violence against Shias is particularly grisly. He holds back tears as he talks of how his cousin, Ahmed al-Bahadli, was murdered 10 days ago.

A Shia Muslim from the Sadr City slums of Baghdad, Ahmed had joined the new Iraqi National Guard, only to be killed in his patrol car when a bomb planted by insurgents exploded.

The next day, as his family took his coffin for burial in the holy Shia city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, they were stopped at what purported to be a police checkpoint near the town of Iskandaria and ordered out of their minibus.

Insurgents wearing fake police uniforms shot and beheaded six of the mourners, including Ahmed's mother. Then they ripped Ahmed's body out of the coffin and decapitated him too.

"We found their bodies and heads scattered under some trees near the road," said Mr Aziz, who was travelling in a car behind and managed to flee. "It is too terrible to think about."

While the west has largely focused on violence against coalition forces, the depth of hatred for fellow Iraqis which spares no quarter for the bereaved or dead runs deep through the Sunni towns along the road to Najaf. Coalition forces know the area as the "Triangle of Death" but it is becoming no less lethal to Iraqi Shias. The towns are strongholds of Salafism, a form of Sunni Islam which despises Shias for revering Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Mohammed.

Salafist-led insurgents have been linked to the murders of scores of Shia pilgrims in the past year. The campaign has attracted little publicity but fears are growing that it is among the first skirmishes of Iraq's much-feared civil war.

Under Saddam, himself a Sunni, Shias were persecuted as official policy. Now that he has gone, Sunni citizens are doing it themselves. Of the country's 20 million population, 60-65 per cent are Shia, 19 per cent are Sunni Kurds and 13 per cent Sunni Arab.

Moderate religious leaders, including Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, have attempted to calm potential conflict, blaming the killings on "criminals and foreigners". Only yesterday, however, an extremist Sunni group claimed responsibility for the murder of one of the ayatollah's aides, his son and four guards in a car bombing last Wednesday.

Mr Aziz, and many Shi'ites from the al-Bahadli tribe, crave vengeance for their suffering. "We don't know who the culprits are exactly, but we shall take revenge on all the Salafists in Iskandaria," he said. "The government, the religious people such as Sistani and the coalition forces will not stop us killing them."

The radical Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mehdi street army fought with US forces last year in Najaf, recently vowed to send militiamen into Iskandaria if more Shia blood was spilt.

With the elections scheduled for January 30 likely to hand power to the majority Shias for the first time in almost 100 years, an explosive mixture of historic political feuds and prejudices as well as jousting for power, threatens to rip Iraq apart.

Many Iraqis believe that a Sunni-Shia conflict is already being fought by proxy, citing the attacks on Iraqi security forces, and Iraqis working with the US-backed government. Shias make up the majority of the new police and army recruits. "The Sunnis are attacking us for two reasons," said one Iraqi military official. "It is because they don't like people working with the Americans, but also they don't care when it is mainly Shias getting killed."

Within Iraq, election manifestos produced by Shia and Sunni candidates stress the importance of putting the interests of Iraq first; those of factional interests second.

Away from the sensitive political arena, however, analysis is franker.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN envoy, Gen John Abizaid, the senior Pentagon commander in Iraq, and several CIA officials have warned of the threat of civil war.

Last month, Brent Scowcroft, a national security adviser to President Bush Snr, said that elections likely to be boycotted by most of Iraq's Sunnis were a recipe for "incipient civil war".

In response, British diplomats said that such predictions were ''very overdone''.

One senior British official said: "If there is one thing the Iraqis say they do not want to see, it is a descent into sectarian strife.''

He said that efforts by Sunnis to provoke Shias - including car bombs last month in the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala that killed 62 - had not worked as they hoped.

Instead, Shias were keen to prove that their expected majority in the new government would not come at Sunni or Kurdish expense. "The idea that the Shias are a monolithic block who are going to turn the country into some kind of Khomeini-like theocracy is simply not true," said the official.

On the streets of Baghdad, voters believe that politicians are reluctant to talk about civil war in case they are labelled troublemakers. "I am sure that civil war with the Sunni Salafists will happen eventually," said Jameel Alaan, a member of the Shia Dawa party. "All the good people are leaving now. But who will say this? Nobody."