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Sectarian Violence in Iraq Prompts Calls for Change in US Strategy


There are calls in the United States for a change in strategy to head off what some fear may become a full-blown civil war in Iraq. President Bush has ruled out withdrawing U.S. troops. He says a pullout now would make the situation much worse and could turn the country into a safe haven for terrorists. While some analysts agree, they also believe the United States must come up with new strategies if it wants to achieve its goal of turning Iraq into a stable, democratic country.

The violence seems to be never-ending. A recent incident took place during a Shi'ite religious procession. More than 15 people were killed.

What was once a war against a Sunni Arab insurgency is evolving into a bloody sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ites, with U.S. troops caught in the middle.

"I think it is what I would call a slow-motion civil war," says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation.

"It's not a full-fledged civil war by any means because the scale of the violence would be much greater. But there's a danger it could trend in that direction."

Thousands of people have been killed in sectarian violence since a famed Shi'ite mosque was bombed in February.

U.S. military strategy has been focused on creating a national Iraqi army to replace U.S. troops in maintaining security. But this may not be enough. Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations specializes in the study of military power.

"We think we are building up a national Iraqi military. The Sunnis think what we're doing is we're arming their Shi'ite rivals. The Sunnis look at the national military as a Shi'ite militia on steroids. The stronger that Shi'ite militia on steroids gets the more they dig in their heels and the harder they fight back in what they understand to be a war over potentially existential stakes -- the survival of the Sunni community," says Mr. Biddle.

And Sunnis have been fighting back, with car bombs and other attacks against Shi'ite civilians. Shi'ite militias have been retaliating with death-squad type murders of Sunnis. The escalating sectarian violence has led to urgent calls for a change in the U.S. strategy.

Prominent Democratic Senator Joseph Biden has proposed a plan calling for decentralizing the Iraqi government and a firm timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals.

But President Bush rejects any proposals to withdraw. "Any sign that says we're going to leave before the job is done,” said the president, “simply emboldens terrorists and creates a certain amount of doubt for people so they won't take the risk necessary to help a civil society evolve."

However, some say Washington should use its military presence in Iraq to force a compromise between the rival groups to end the violence. Stephen Biddle says, "If our military policy is going to promote, rather than retard the incentives to the parties to compromise, it is going to have to start to be made conditional on the parties' bargaining behavior. If you make progress toward a deal we will stay and we will protect you. If you do not, we won't."

The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been trying to forge political compromises with representatives of the various groups to stave off the violence. But so far he has made little visible progress.

The government may need more time, says James Phillips of the Heritage Foundation. "During the Algerian civil war in the early 90s most western governments had written off the Algerian government in its battle against Islamic radicals. But that government is still there, in part because it held elections and reached out to some opposition groups, brought in the moderates into a national consensus and I think that also can work in Iraq over time."

But time may not be an unlimited commodity. With sectarian violence increasing steadily, Iraq may reach a point of no return where the desire for vengeance overwhelms the prospects for peaceful coexistence -- despite the best efforts of the U.S. military mission.