Leading article: The civil war that looks ever harder to avert

Related Topics

Baghdad's relative security has always been deceptive. While the heavily guarded Green Zone has shielded the government and foreign representations from attack, what is euphemistically termed low-level violence has simmered elsewhere. The north-eastern suburbs, once known as Saddam City, now renamed Sadr City, have often borne the brunt of the killing.

Yesterday was different. Gunmen identified as being from a Shia militia went on the rampage through the Jihad district of western Baghdad, picking out Sunnis and killing them at close range. More than 40 Sunnis died in this shooting spree. Later, another 17 people were killed in two car bomb attacks near a Shia mosque.

Bands of gunmen moving systematically through a district, killing civilians from another religious group, is something that has been seen in mixed neighbourhoods outside Baghdad, but never before on this scale in the capital. The immediate explanation given by officials was that the shootings were in retaliation for a car bomb outside a nearby Shia mosque the day before. Others saw the rampage as the latest flare-up in a Shia-Sunni struggle that has targeted mosques elsewhere in Iraq since February, when a Shia shrine at Samarra was bombed.

Murderous and destructive though both are, however, there is a qualitative difference between bombings that target mosques and the systematic shooting of civilians in their cars or in their homes. The faithful can assess the risk of visiting the mosque and stay away. No one can guard against his car being stopped or his home invaded, just because he happens to be from a particular ethnic or religious group. This is sectarian, inter-communal violence at its most primitive and threatening. No one can feel safe in such a climate.

The latest developments can only be a source of huge discouragement to the Prime Minister, Nuri al-Malaki, not to speak of the US and British governments and the many Iraqis hoping for peace. The appointment of a Prime Minister and the long-drawn-out negotiations to form a government constituted the final stage of Iraq's post-Saddam transition. The hope, widely shared, was that with all the components of a representative government in place, Iraq would finally settle down and bury its differences in the name of national reconstruction.

Hopes were reinforced last month, when a US missile attack killed the presumed head of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was held responsible for some of the most heinous killings of foreigners. The thinking, especially among US officials, was that without Zarqawi, whatever part of the violence was inspired by al-Qa'ida would quickly subside. The US had long preferred to view the violence in Iraq as terrorism, rather than anti-occupation or sectarian in origin.

The new solutions, such as there are any, look even less promising. An elaborate security plan for Baghdad, devised by the Iraqi government, with the backing of the US, has yielded disappointing results; it looks set to be revised or abandoned. And yesterday representatives of nine states in the region, meeting in Tehran, gave their backing to an Iraq "reconciliation plan", while declining to offer direct mediation. Iraq finds itself in a Catch-22, where violence renders the authorities powerless and the impotence of the authorities fosters violence.

Yesterday's shootings mark another stage in the descent of Iraq into civil war. If Shia elements have taken up arms against Sunnis, simply because they are Sunnis, and if they have been able to take their fight to the capital, then it is hard to see how, or where, the tide of violence can be turned back.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yvette Cooper campaigning in London at the launch of Labour’s women’s manifesto  

I want the Labour Party to lead a revolution in family support

Yvette Cooper
Liz Kendall  

Labour leadership contest: 'Moderniser' is just a vague and overused label

Steve Richards
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine