Sectarian violence in Iraq over the past week has killed hundreds of people, raising concerns that the country is sliding towards civil war. Two top U.S. intelligence officials warned Tuesday that more attacks could significantly impact the already tenuous situation.
Sectarian violence took a new direction last Wednesday in Iraq, when the sacred Shi'ite shrine of Imams Ali al-Hadi and al-Hasan al-Askari was attacked in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad. The attackers set off explosives, heavily damaging the 1,000-year-old shrine and reducing its golden dome to rubble. The bombing sparked reprisal attacks and fears that Iraq is headed for civil war.
Lieutenant General Michael Maples, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the U.S. top military intelligence official, says the situation is precarious.
"I do believe that this last week has been a very significant week in Iraq," said General Maples. "The level of sectarian violence increased significantly on the ground based on the bombings of the mosque. And we saw exactly the deep divides that exist between the Sunnis and the Shi'ia in Iraq."
But the general told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that the situation has not completely deteriorated.
"I believe the underlying conditions are present, but we are not involved in a civil war at this time," he said.
John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, said Iraq's political and religious leaders realize the importance of keeping the country from slipping into a civil war following the Samarra attack.
"In the course of this crisis of the past several days, the political leaders of the country, both in the government and outside of it, representing all of the different factions - Shi'ia, Sunni, Kurdish and others - have come together," said John Negroponte. "Secondly, with respect to religious leadership of the country, I think by and large, they have been a force for restraint."
General Maples warned that more terrorist attacks could push the country over the brink.
"I think that more violence, were it to occur, were it to be stimulated by al-Qaida in Iraq, would have a very significant impact on the situation in Iraq," said Michael Maples.
But the general said if the violence were to escalate, he believes Iraq's nascent security forces would fight very hard. He also did not think Iraq's neighbors would intervene militarily in an Iraqi conflict.
Fears of civil war have been complicated by the continuing struggle to form a new Iraqi government. A new parliament was elected in December to a four-year term, but a government has yet to be formed. Negroponte warned that if the new government is not widely inclusive, it could have the effect of prolonging the insurgency.
But he expressed some optimism, saying Iraqi security forces have improved since he first arrived in Iraq nearly two years ago in his previous post as ambassador, and Sunni Arabs have since joined the political process.