U.S. Interests on Line in Iraq

iraq sunni extremismROBERT H. REID, AP, August 4 – BAGHDAD, Iraq — American generals have laid bare the facts: Baghdad is on the brink of chaos, and the specter of all-out civil war looms.

Instead of standing down, as had been hoped this year, the U.S. military is preparing for a major operation to try to take back Baghdad’s streets from Shiite and Sunni extremists. The goal is to stem sectarian violence that Iraqi security forces could not control.

An Iraqi burns an American flag as thousands of Shiite Iraqis gathered in a mass demonstration against Israel’s bombing of Lebanon, Friday, Aug. 4, 2006, in the Sadr City area of Baghdad, Iraq. Over 200,000 Shiites filled the streets of the Shiite dominated Sadr City slum to attend a rally in support of Lebanon after Friday prayers. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban) (Hadi Mizban – AP)
The stakes could not be higher: The fate of the U.S. mission in Iraq is on the line as fighting in Lebanon to the west and the rise of a militant Iran to the east threaten American interests throughout the Middle East.

Without a firm grip on Baghdad, the U.S. and its Iraqi allies cannot control the country. But Baghdad’s diverse population of Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Turkomen and Christians makes for a volatile mix as the country’s religious and ethnic groups compete for power in the new Iraq. All the tensions that threaten to tear the country apart play themselves out in Baghdad.

Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, bluntly spelled out the situation Thursday before a Senate committee.

"I believe that the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I have seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war," Abizaid said.

That was hardly news to the 6.5 million residents of Iraq’s shabby, tumultuous capital. Many Iraqis believe their country has been in a low-intensity civil war since the February bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. That blast triggered a wave of reprisal attacks against Sunnis, accelerating a pattern of tit-for-tat killings, kidnappings and bombings.

Abizaid’s comments marked a stunning departure from the public position taken by U.S. military officials here for months. A bare two months ago, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. general in Iraq, was talking about reducing the U.S. military presence this year as Iraqi units took responsibility for more and more territory.

Two months after the Samarra bombing, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch said U.S. forces had found no "widespread movement" of Shiites and Sunnis away from mixed areas _ at a time the Iraqi government estimated 90,000 people had fled their homes.

Abizaid’s comments also represent a stark admission that Iraq’s vaunted national unity government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds is united in name only.

Sunni politicians have yet to bring Sunni insurgents to the bargaining table. Some key Shiite politicians maintain close links to militias.

Without a political agreement on how to share power and wealth, it is unlikely the Baghdad security operation will be little more than a stopgap measure.