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."
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.