A Step Back From War

Saturday, February 25, 2006

THE WAVE of sectarian violence that seemed to push Iraq to the brink of a civil war this week has ebbed, at least for now. If the relative peace holds -- and another attack such as the bombing Wednesday of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra could easily shatter it -- Iraq's political and religious leaders will have demonstrated an encouraging determination to prevent communal bloodshed. The strike on the shrine was clearly intended to trigger war between Sunnis and Shiites -- the avowed aim of al-Qaeda in Iraq -- and for a perilous couple of days it looked as if the country might succumb. But by yesterday Iraq's most influential leaders, from the Sunni Imam Ahmed Hasan al-Taha to the Shiite clerics and political leaders Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Moqtada al-Sadr, had denounced the violence, including acts by their own sects. Iraqi government forces deployed swiftly and effectively to enforce a curfew in Baghdad.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, was encouraged enough -- or desperate enough -- to say that the crisis had created "a moment of opportunity" for Iraq. "This tragedy can be used to bring people together," he said. Sadly, Mr. Khalilzad, who has worked feverishly to hold Iraq together since his arrival last summer, may be Baghdad's last optimist. The bombing did serve to demonstrate that most of Iraq's major players, including those who command its strongest sectarian militias, don't see civil war as in their interest, at least for now. Even radicals such as Mr. Sadr, and the militant clerics of the Sunni heartland, are still invested in the political process: the negotiations on forming a new government and the still-emerging shape of an Iraqi political system.

But rather than using the terrible provocation in Samarra to motivate a national accord, key Iraqi leaders so far have hardened their resistance to necessary concessions. The largest Sunni political alliance at least temporarily boycotted political talks, instead dispatching a long list of demands. Mr. Hakim publicly blamed Mr. Khalilzad for having said that the Interior and Defense ministries in a future government must be placed in "nonsectarian" hands, as if the ambassador's comment could have inspired the Samarra bombing. Mr. Hakim is trying to prevent the removal of his Interior Ministry appointee, who has overseen the creation of Shiite death squads that pose the single greatest obstacle to a national unity government. His position may have been bolstered by the supreme Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who issued a statement appearing to endorse militia forces "to guarantee the necessary security."

Mr. Khalilzad seems to be doing his best to use diminishing U.S. influence on the Iraqi parties. Importantly, he has warned that U.S. funding for Iraqi police and security forces could be withdrawn if the Interior ministry and its death squads are not cleaned up. That's a good place to draw a line: Mr. Hakim and his Shiite allies should not expect that U.S. resources, and U.S. troops, will continue to defend them from al-Qaeda and Sunni insurgents while they pursue sectarian agendas -- whether it be the murder of Sunnis in Baghdad or the attempt to create a Shiite Islamic statelet in southern Iraq. The good news is that those leaders have looked into the chasm of civil war and decided to take a step back. Now they must understand that the only alternative is a political compromise that preserves the possibility of a united and democratic Iraq.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company