Diplomacy Helped To Calm the Chaos

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

BAGHDAD, Feb. 27 -- In the days that followed the bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine, Iraq seemed within a hair's breadth of civil war. But an aggressive U.S. and Kurdish diplomatic campaign appears for now to have coaxed the country back from open conflict between Sunni Arabs and Shiites, according to Iraqi politicians and Western diplomats speaking in interviews on Monday.

"Localized difficulties also persist, but I think, at the strategic level, this crisis -- a mosque attack leading to civil war -- is over," Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said in a telephone interview. "It was a serious crisis. I believe that Iraq came to the brink and came back."

Khalilzad and others sounded upbeat on Monday, as authorities lifted a three-day ban on vehicle traffic and life in Baghdad returned to a state of uneasy normalcy after five days of bloodletting. The ambassador, another Western diplomat and Iraqi politicians described the behind-the-scenes political negotiations that helped stem the violence.

The crisis began Wednesday with the destruction of the golden-domed Askariya shrine in Samarra, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam. Although no one was killed in the bombing, the mosque is so important as a symbol that within hours the country appeared heading toward chaos. As Shiite and Sunni leaders called for peace by day, their followers waged war by night on one another and civilian bystanders in a campaign of raids, bombings, arson and assassinations. More than 1,300 Iraqis have been killed in the past five days, according to workers in the Baghdad morgue.

As fighting raged, Khalilzad and Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president, pushed the factions toward a rapprochement. On Saturday, after a whirlwind of telephone calls and meetings, they managed to bring leaders from every important political faction in Iraq together in an unusual bid for peace that seems to have quelled the violence and stopped the slide toward civil war.

But for four days, the situation often threatened to spin out of control. In the hours after the attack, infuriated Shiite leaders compared the bombing of the mosque to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Khalilzad said.

The Mahdi Army, the militia controlled by the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, took to the streets seeking vengeance almost immediately, despite calls for peaceful demonstrations by other Shiite politicians and by Sadr himself. Dressed in black, the militiamen machine-gunned Sunni mosques in drive-by attacks, occupied them or set them ablaze. Sunni leaders accused the Shiites of kidnapping and killing Sunnis in raids while the predominantly Shiite police force looked away.

Sunnis retaliated with their own attacks, and by Thursday afternoon -- the bloodiest day of the crisis -- they announced that they would boycott meetings on the formation of a new government. They also refused to attend a lunch meeting of Shiite and Kurdish political factions that Talabani had painstakingly organized, instead presenting a list of 10 demands to be met before they would rejoin talks.

"I would not say that it engendered a warm reaction," said a Western diplomat familiar with the negotiations, who provided a background interview on the condition that he not be named.

Among those most upset by the Sunni boycott threat was Talabani, an ethnic Kurd who was able to take a central role in the negotiations because he was perceived as a neutral party.

Ironically, the Kurds stood to gain the most from a civil conflict. They have long wanted an independent state, and revolted against Saddam Hussein in 1991 only to be brutally repressed. But Talabani was deeply troubled by the Samarra crisis, said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat who was in contact with Talabani throughout the crisis.

"I've known President Jalal Talabani for over 20 years," Galbraith said. "It is the most pessimistic I've seen him, and that includes being in Iraq the night the uprising collapsed and we were fleeing for our lives. Here, he was profoundly disturbed about the future of Iraq."

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