Iraq debate: Is it civil war?

Sectarian killings claim 130 lives


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Retaliatory massacres by gunmen and bombers linked to rival Muslim sects have left more than 130 people dead across Iraq in the past 48 hours, the latest casualties of what some politicians now are calling an undeclared civil war.

At least 57 Iraqis were killed yesterday and scores were injured when a suicide bomber lured a group of unemployed day laborers to his explosives-packed minivan with the promise of work before setting off a detonation. The attack spread blood, burnt debris and charred body parts on a small market across the street from the Muslim bin Aqil mosque in Kufa, the main platform for radical Shiite cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

It was the latest in a series of atrocities perpetrated by Shiite and Sunni Arab Muslims that have left more than 6,000 Iraqi civilians dead since the start of May, according to a U.N. study and Iraqi police reports.

The new bombing, coming on the heels of a series of mass murders and bombings attributed to al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and its Sunni Arab enemies, brought the battle to the Shiite cleric's doorstep, igniting fears of a fresh wave of reprisal killings.

"The message is clear, and the message confirms the sectarian differences," said Fadhel Sharaa, a leader of the al-Sadr movement. "It seems clear that it's been moving toward the direction of civil war."

U.S. and Iraqi government leaders have argued that the presence of 150,000 foreign troops has held the country from descending into full-scale civil war. But many Iraqi officials now despair that the country has passed the threshold.

"What is happening in Iraq is a disaster and a tragedy," Adnan Dulaymi, a Sunni Arab leader, said in an interview. "It's bloodshed and killing of the innocents, killing the elderly and women and children. It's mass killings. It's nothing less than an undeclared civil war."

The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni Arab political group, warned yesterday that "Iraq is witnessing a grave escalation in violence" and called on Iraqis "to return to their senses instead of slipping into the abyss."

The upsurge in violence has terrified residents of Baghdad and other mixed Sunni and Shiite areas. The Baghdad airport has been flooded with Iraqis of modest means seeking to escape even temporarily the country's upswing in killings based on religious identity.

According to a United Nations study based on Ministry of Health statistics, 2,669 Iraqi civilians were killed in May and 3,149 were killed in June. And this month, the rate appears to be accelerating, particularly in the Baghdad area where Iraqi security forces, on the heels of a mid-June visit by President Bush, had announced a sweeping security crackdown aimed at quelling the violence.

"Things are getting worse," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker.

Even those hesitant to label Iraq's continuing sectarian violence a civil war have begun saying that the only way to quell the sectarian killings is through the international mechanisms used to mediate past ethnic, religious and political conflicts in Central America, the former Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka.

"I start to feel the need to say that there is a civil war," said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a Sunni politician, "in order to borrow the tools and solutions of past civil wars to apply them here, and to call upon the international community to deal with Iraq's problems on this basis."

Iraq's elected political leaders have floated several plans to contain the fighting, including the June Baghdad security plan, which included new checkpoints and curfews and a requirement that Iraqis own no more than one automatic weapon and to keep it at home. That crackdown has been declared a failure by all but the most strident supporters of the current government.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and his aides also continue to promote a reconciliation plan meant to draw at least some of the Sunni insurgents away from the gun and to bring organized Shiite militias under the authority of official security forces.

In recent days, Iraqi politicians have proposed joint neighborhood watch groups composed of loyalists to both Shiite and Sunni political parties, in an attempt to spur dialogue and avoid waves of reprisal killings.

"We're talking about the security situation on the ground in different neighborhoods," said Haidar Abadi, a lawmaker and member of Maliki's Dawa Party. "Without having understanding and cooperation on the ground, we'll be drawn into civil war."

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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