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Last Updated: Monday, 27 February 2006, 11:54 GMT
Life-and-death struggle for Iraq
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC World Affairs Editor

Only people outside Iraq bother to argue about whether what is happening here is a civil war.

Iraqis demonstrate in Najaf after the bombing of a holy Shia shrine in Samarra
Fresh sectarian violence erupted after the bombing of a Shia shrine
Inside, they know how bad things are; they don't need to attach a label to it.

This is my eighth visit to Baghdad in the space of 13 months, and things are worse now than I have ever seen them.

The deliberate, well-planned efforts by extremists to provoke the Shia Muslim community into violence against Sunni Muslims have been depressingly successful.

Murder gangs have retaliated again and again against the Sunni community. Some Shia clerics are no longer so outspoken against these tit-for-tat killings.

Anger and bitterness

Yet senior Iraqi politicians have not reached the point of despair. They acknowledge that things are bad and may well get worse, but they still feel there are some grounds for hope.

Chief among these is the fact that many Iraqis, perhaps the majority, are not prepared to see the country break up into its constituent parts.

Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that most Sunnis and Shia actively want to continue living alongside each other.

The danger Iraq faces now is that its duly elected government will fail

Anyone who spent time, as I did, in the former Yugoslavia before the civil wars of the early 1990s will remember the bitterness between the different ethnic groups, and the contempt for the old Yugoslav system, too, which had failed so badly.

Iraq is different. The layout of the country may have been imposed on its people by the League of Nations, under British prompting, only 86 years ago, yet it has not failed, as Yugoslavia (which was formed at roughly the same time) failed.

What happened was that US and British forces invaded Iraq in 2003 and smashed the state, causing an anger and bitterness which the Bush administration and the Blair government have never acknowledged.

Troop presence

Last Friday, as the intercommunal violence reached new heights, some Sunnis and Shias prayed together to show their determination to keep the country working.

Many moderate Iraqis now believe the US and British presence here is distinctly irrelevant.

US President George W Bush
President Bush says he is "optimistic" about Iraq

In Baghdad last week, it was reported that American soldiers were at first ordered to stay in their barracks for fear of making the situation worse, though later the number of patrols was stepped up.

Local politicians in Basra, and other towns and cities in the area where the British are based, have felt for some time that there is no valid function for them to perform.

Some anti-war bloggers in Europe and North America seem positively gleeful about the way things are going here - as though the important thing is that George W Bush and Tony Blair should be humiliated, and that the violence in Iraq is the method by which this can be achieved.

Election damage

Yet what we are watching is the life-and-death struggle of a nation, and the efforts of its democratically elected politicians to sort things out.

How the politicians came to be elected scarcely matters any more; the fact is, if they fail in the face of all this violence, Iraq itself will be appallingly damaged.

Looking back on the events of the past year, it is clear that the three different popular votes which were held in Iraq, two elections and one referendum, played a big part in whipping up the violence.

People who had tended to regard themselves primarily as Iraqis were suddenly forced to focus on the fact that they belonged to a particular group: Sunni, Shia, Kurdish, Christian or whatever.

The act of voting was as divisive as it was empowering, and the fact that it happened three times in 11 months added to the intensity of the problem.

Rush for democracy

So did the politicians' slowness in forming a coalition government. After the first election in January 2005, it was three months before they could get together and begin running the country.

An Iraqi army soldier secures the scene after car bomb explodes in Baghdad
If violence worsens, it will be hard to deny a civil war is going on
At first, the resistance movement held off its attacks, anxious to see what would happen and worried that it might find itself running completely counter to the feelings of the Iraqi population.

Slowly though, people became sick of the political squabbling, and the length of time it took to get agreement, and the violence crept back to its previous level.

Paul Bremer, the US proconsul who brought all this about, has been accused of all sorts of failings, only some of which were his fault.

Even the abolition of the Iraqi army should not be blamed on him alone.

But there were thoughtful, influential people who knew that the dash for democracy was potentially disastrous, and they warned him about it - without success.

Yet all this is history now - just like the rights and wrongs of the original decision to invade Iraq, and the non-existence of the weapons of mass destruction, and the fact that there never were enough American troops to do the job properly, and all the rest of it.

The danger Iraq faces now is that its duly elected government will fail.

If that happens, and the violence gets worse, it would be very hard indeed to deny that a civil war in the full sense of the term is going on here.


Do you agree with John Simpson's views? Send us your comments.




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