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Diplomacy Helped To Calm the Chaos

As it turned out, the Sunni leaders' concrete demands -- for an immediate curfew, for a denunciation of the violence and for the return of mosques occupied by Shiite militiamen -- were acceptable, Khalilzad said. The curfew began at 8 p.m. Thursday and continued into daytime the next day. The level of violence plummeted on Friday, giving the politicians time to work out their differences.

Among the continuing problems was the role of Sadr's militiamen in causing chaos. "Militias are the infrastructure of civil war, and the basis of warlordism," Khalilzad said.

The other Western diplomat was more blunt with respect to Sadr. "He cannot play a credible role in the political process, where he engenders confidence and trust, until his militia demobilizes," he said.

By Saturday morning, the crisis had reached a turning point. After discussions at the White House and with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, President Bush called leaders from each faction to give them the final push toward an accommodation, Khalilzad said.

After the call, the Sunni leaders announced their willingness to rejoin the talks, and later that evening they met with various representatives. At the end of that meeting, just before midnight on Saturday, the Iraqi prime minister, flanked by the leaders of the major political parties, solemnly announced at a news conference that the country would not have a civil war -- a moment of "terrific political symbolism," the Western diplomat said.

The diplomat said that the outside pressure helped but that the Sunni decision to seek an agreement was also made from a cold calculation of what could happen if they fought it out.

"I think these guys don't just react to pressure," the diplomat said. "They measure their own interests. And they understood that staying out of the political process put them back to where they were a year ago," when they had largely boycotted Iraq's first election and found themselves with almost no political power.

Saleh al-Mutlak, a Sunni leader who attended the talks Saturday, put it more bluntly: "I think this is a lesson for the Sunnis," he said. "Next time they will try to buy weapons to face these kinds of developments."

Khalilzad agreed that there would likely be a next time, noting that "efforts to provoke a civil war are likely to continue." But he was hopeful that this crisis would be a key moment in the history of Iraq.

"I give credit to Iraqi leaders for rising to the occasion," Khalilzad said. "Going to the brink, of course, but more importantly, pulling back. I am gratified that the decisive crisis caused by the attacks did not lead to an all-out civil war. The Iraqi people, I hope, will learn from this to use this as an opportunity for a new nationalism."

"Great crises such as this can fragment, polarize people or pull them together," he said. "I hope in 10 years, in 15 years, in 20 years, people will look at this crisis as a turning point in getting Iraqis to come together against a common enemy."

Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.


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