A chance to ease bloodshed in Iraq

June 13, 2006|By TRUDY RUBIN

BAGHDAD -- When the photo of the bloodied face of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was displayed to the Baghdad press corps Thursday, we confronted something even uglier than a mass murderer's corpse.

This was the face of a man who deliberately provoked civil war in Iraq. More than any other factor, he bears responsibility for the sectarian violence that threatens the country. Staring at the grainy image of that bearded face, with red splotches on cheek and nose, one had to wonder whether the evil he unleashed could now be checked.

This is the big question of the post-al-Zarqawi era: Will his death make it more feasible for Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis to reconcile and stabilize the country? Or will the civil war worsen and entrap American soldiers between the warring sides?

Mr. al-Zarqawi was spectacularly successful in his efforts to make Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis kill each other. The Muslim sects differ in their beliefs over the rightful succession to the prophet Muhammad. But in Iraq, they have intermarried for centuries, and the larger tribes include members of both sects.

When Saddam Hussein fell, tensions between minority Sunnis and majority Shiites increased. Mr. Hussein had favored the former and persecuted the latter. The bulk of the insurgency was led by Sunni Baathists and military men who were resentful at their loss of power.

But the Sunni zealot Mr. al-Zarqawi and his small al-Qaida movement went further, labeling Shiites apostates and bombing their mosques and markets. For more than two years, the supreme Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, forbade retaliation. But neither U.S. forces nor Iraqi security forces could protect the Shiites from death.

Finally, in February, Mr. al-Zarqawi's followers blew up one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, the al-Askariyah Shrine, provoking revenge by Shiite militias. This, in turn, led to more Sunni retaliation - and a cycle that is tearing apart families, neighborhoods and whole towns.

You can feel the al-Zarqawi impact everywhere.

Shiites who live in Sunni neighborhoods get messages telling them to move out on 24 hours' notice or face death. An acquaintance from the Shiite shrine city of Karbala in southern Iraq tells me refugee camps are filling up on its outskirts with poor Shiites who have been driven from Baghdad or mixed towns to the north.

Sunni civilians are being killed in retaliation by feared Shiite militias such as the Mahdi Army. At one dinner in an Iraqi home, I was shown a black-draped photo of the host's Sunni brother-in-law, who was dragged from his car and shot by Shiite militiamen last month. Thousands have died this way.

Mr. al-Zarqawi also was trying to undercut Iraq's new national unity government, which for the first time includes Sunni political leaders. His men killed the brother and sister of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi and have slain many Sunni clerics and sheiks who advocate politics over the gun.

Before Mr. al-Zarqawi's death, Shiite and Sunni leaders argued over how to check his efforts. Shiites insisted the main problem was Mr. al-Zarqawi and the insurgency, not their militias.

"Zarqawi can hit wherever he wants and make Shia retaliate," the thoughtful Shiite vice president, Adel Abdel Mahdi, told me over breakfast in his Baghdad office. "The [Shiite] people waited for three years and didn't retaliate. They couldn't find security, and people got fed up. We can't control that."

Once the insurgents were curbed, said Mr. Mahdi, the Shiite militias would fade.

But Mr. Mahdi's counterpart, Sunni Vice President Hashemi, maintained that the Shiite militia problem had to be confronted immediately.

"So far, there is no trust between the different sectors of the community," he told me. "No one is building bridges. We are like islands."

The question now is whether Mr. al-Zarqawi's death can provide a bridge.

If - and this if is big - his death leads to a drop in attacks on Shiites, there might be more space for pursuing a national compact between the Shiites and Sunnis. They will still disagree over how to deal with the rest of the insurgency and how Iraq should be ruled. But a slowing of sectarian killings might facilitate negotiations.

Mr. al-Zarqawi's name had become synonymous with the sectarian hatred that threatens not only Iraq but also the entire region. His demise may temper the growth of this hatred. At least that's what I hoped when I looked at the grisly photo of his corpse.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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