By Michael A. Fletcher and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 25, 2006
President Bush warned yesterday that sectarian violence is confronting Iraqis with a "moment of choosing," as administration officials pleaded with all sides of the country's religious and ethnic divides to show restraint.
Bush said that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, had met with the leaders of an array of Iraqi factions in an effort to promote unity over reprisals.
The latest bloodshed poses a new challenge to the Bush administration's strategy for reconstruction and eventual troop withdrawals. The sectarian attacks threaten to paralyze Iraq's fledgling political process while prompting fears that unrest could wash into neighboring countries.
Bush and senior officials sounded a newly grim note yesterday about the near-term difficulties. Several independent analysts said the attacks will raise political pressure to bring U.S. troops home, even as they underscore that Iraq is too unstable to allow a precipitous withdrawal.
Speaking in Washington to the American Legion, Bush blamed the violence on insurgents intent on disrupting Iraq's democratic progress, and he predicted the violence is likely to continue.
"The days ahead in Iraq are going to be difficult and exhausting," the president said. Still, he pleaded for patience, saying that Iraq's leaders are committed to stopping civil strife and that the will of the moderates will eventually take hold.
More than 100 people across Iraq have been killed in attacks and counterattacks between Sunni and Shiite Muslims touched off by the bombing earlier this week of the Askariya shrine, a revered Shiite site in Samarra. The attacks prompted the Iraqi government to impose a curfew in Baghdad and three provinces. That led to a sharp reduction in the violence yesterday as U.S. and Iraqi troops worked to maintain the peace.
In a telephone briefing with reporters, Khalilzad called the situation "a moment of, of course, danger, but it is also a moment of opportunity."
"In crises such as the one caused by this attack," he said, "there is an opportunity to bring people together and to defeat goals of those who want to promote a civil war in this country."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, returning from a week-long visit to the Middle East, said Arab leaders expressed fear violence will spread.
"There is a concern that sectarian tension that outsiders are stoking in Iraq, that those same outsiders might try and stoke sectarian tensions in other parts of the region," Rice said.
The prospect of a wider regional war erupting between Sunni and Shiite populations if civil war broke out in Iraq has been a concern of many analysts.
"This is an extremely hard and extremely delicate moment, obviously, for the Iraqis," Rice said. There are "heightened sensitivities and people's nerves are a bit on edge when you have this kind of strike against Iraq unity."
The United States has tried to bring various Iraqi factions together to form a unity government, but the widening violence makes that effort even more urgent.
White House national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said the administration is hoping that the current crisis will help the various Iraqi factions "to see the importance for them to come together and to accelerate the establishment of an unity government."
"The question is, can this crisis also be an opportunity for bringing some Iraqi political leaders to their senses and encouraging cooperation," said James A. Phillips, of the conservative Heritage Foundation. "In a logical world that may be the case, but this is the Middle East."
The violence in Iraq this week has stirred debate about whether the U.S. military should continue to consider troop withdrawal plans. Although commanders hope to gradually draw down the 133,000 U.S. forces in Iraq, defense officials are basing decisions on troop levels on the conditions on the ground, which now appear to be worsening.
While the U.S. military avoided massive displays of force on the streets of Iraq over the past few days -- preferring to let Iraq's developing security forces take the lead in quelling violence -- defense and Iraq experts said that a withdrawal of troops in the near term could spell disaster.
A. Heather Coyne, who just returned from Baghdad, where she was the chief of party for the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the United States should avoid trying to take military control of the situation and instead should focus on building the Iraqi government's authority and providing basic services. She said, however, that troops are needed to give people a sense of stability and that such stability might not exist on its own for several years.
"A precipitous withdrawal will cause chaos," said Coyne, who spent three years in Iraq, initially as a civil-military affairs officer.
Although Coyne and others believe Iraq has been on the brink of civil war for some time, they emphasize that has not happened.
"The terrorists would like to see this break out in civil war, but I don't think the people are going to allow that to happen," Army Col. Jeffery J. Snow, commander of the 1st Brigade, 10th Mountain Division in Baghdad, said in a videoconference. Snow said Iraqi security forces are developing well but "it is important not to be unrealistic." He added: "The defeat of the counterinsurgency is going to take time, and the growth of a new army cannot be instantly realized."
Though some members of Congress have called for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops and a complete handover to the more than 230,000 Iraqi troops, some say such a move could cause Iraqi society to implode because the security situation is so tenuous.
"Withdrawal right now would be irresponsible," said Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who suggested that raising U.S. forces back to about 160,000 troops -- the level in Iraq last fall -- might be prudent.
"Democrats, Republicans, military officials and Iraqis will all acknowledge that the greatest threat is creating a vacuum, and that's what the insurgents want. Insurgents need to realize that if there is a civil war, they are going to be on the losing end of it," Rubin said.
Staff writer Glenn Kessler in Shannon, Ireland, contributed to this report.