State Department officials are downplaying the prospect of civil warfare in Iraq despite Wednesday's bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra which they say was aimed at promoting sectarian conflict. They say the current social tensions are partly a legacy of Saddam Hussein.
The bombing of one the holiest sites in Shi'a Islam led to crisis meetings among senior administration officials and vigorous condemnations of what the White House termed a senseless crime.
But officials here are insisting that considerable progress has been made over the last two years toward a multi-confessional and multi-ethnic Iraqi society, and that the Samarra bombing should not tip the country toward civil war.
The first official U.S. reaction to the attack was an unusual joint statement by the American ambassador in Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad and the U.S. military commander in Iraq, General George Casey.
In the statement read to local television outlets, the ambassador said Iraqis, in their sadness and anger over a despicable crime, must not allow themselves to be divided.
Ambassador Khalilzad said those who commit acts of violence in the wake of the bombing are only serving the interests of terrorists led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who want to see Iraq descend into sectarian violence:
"This is a critical moment for Iraq," he said. "We call on all Iraqis to unite against terror and violence. Coming together in unity to condemn this barbaric act, and working for Iraq's salvation will be the right response. This desperate and despicable act shows that terrorists stop at nothing and care for nothing."
Ambassador Khalilzad and General Casey, in a gesture later endorsed by President Bush, said the Samarra mosque will be rebuilt and restored to its former glory and that the United States will contribute to its reconstruction.
Briefing reporters, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said Iraq's current religious and ethnic tensions are partly a legacy of 30 years of divide and rule tactics by Saddam Hussein, aggravated more recently by the insurgents.
But he insisted that significant progress has been made toward building a democratic system and society and that talk of a civil war would be overstating the current situation:
"There are some savage and unprincipled elements out there that are going to stop at nothing, including attacking one of Shi'a Islam's holiest shrines to promote the kind of unrest that the great majority of Iraqis have clearly demonstrated they don't want to see," he said. "I don't call that civil war, I call that attempts to undermine understanding and an emerging compact among Iraqi society for a peaceful political future."
The situation in Iraq is expected to be a key issue for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as she continues a Middle East mission Thursday in Abu Dhabi and talks with delegates of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The Bush administration wants U.S. Gulf allies to increase their diplomatic presence in Baghdad, while stepping up aid and forgiving Iraqi debts left over from the Saddam Hussein era.