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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 February 2006, 08:07 GMT
Iraq's civil war nightmare

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

Shia clerics protest in Basra
A civil war could lead to the break-up of Iraq
For the families of the people who have died since the invasion in 2003, or the thousands more who have been maimed, or those who have been kidnapped, it probably does not matter much what sort of war is going on in Iraq.

The fact is that there has been a war there now for the best part of three years, and that it has brought them pain.

But everyone in Iraq - and across the Middle East - knows that a full-blown civil war would be much worse.

After the attack on the al-Askari shrine in Samarra, Jalal Talabani, the President of Iraq, was worried enough to go on television to warn how dangerous such a conflict would be.

Iraq does not have a civil war, but it has the makings of one.

Long before the golden dome of the mosque in Samarra was destroyed there were serious incidents, involving big loss of life, between Iraq's different communities.

All sides have suffered, but the Shia have lost thousands of people in hundreds of sectarian attacks.

The only good thing is that responsible leaders have recognised the danger, and have not allowed their country to slide into the sort of nightmare Lebanon went through in the 15 years after 1975.

Assault

But the destruction of the al-Askari shrine takes the danger of a civil war in Iraq to a new level.

It has produced bigger protests than the killing of humans did - and it could multiply the danger and the violence.

A civil war in Iraq would destroy the chances of the elected central government, which will be led and dominated by Shias when eventually it is formed

The reason is that the holy places in the Middle East are very special for the people who consider them sacred, and that applies to all the different religions and sects.

They are a vital part of the way that people see themselves.

An attack on a shrine is a direct assault on the identity and rights of an entire community.

The great Christian cathedrals in Europe had the same symbolic power when they were built, and still do for the devout.

But as far as most secular Europeans are concerned, they are places that tourists shuffle around in the summer.

Rage and devotion

In the Middle East, it is very different.

For the Israelis, the Western Wall in Jerusalem is a symbol of religion and nationhood. For Palestinians, the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque are the same, at the heart of their claim to the holy city.

In September 2000, the rage caused by the visit of Ariel Sharon, then the leader of the Israeli right-wing, to the compound of the Noble Sanctuary where the mosques stand helped set off five years of killing.

Crowds of Shias in the holy city of Karbala
Millions of Shias make pilgrimages to the holy city of Karbala
The Shia shrines of Iraq are just as important for the people who venerate them.

They are religious places, but they are also red hot politically.

In the Middle East, politics and religion are so connected that often they are the same.

A lot now depends on the Shia leaders, especially Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top religious leader, and the radical nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who broke off a trip to Lebanon to fly home as soon as he heard what had happened in Samarra.

They have both called for national unity, and for Shia people to defend themselves if the authorities cannot.

They live in a culture where it is natural to express rage and sadness, collectively, on the streets.

But their challenge for the leaders is to control and channel the anger, to let it be expressed but not to get out of control.

A civil war in Iraq would destroy the chances of the elected central government, which will be led and dominated by Shias when eventually it is formed.

Civil war could lead to the break-up of the country, and would export even more instability and violence across the wider Middle East and beyond.

That is why most Iraqis, of all sides, do not want one - and why some extremists do, and are trying as hard as they can to make it happen.


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