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Are tit-for-tat sectarian killings enough to tilt Iraq back to war?

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Nabil al-Jurani/AP

(Read caption) Iraqi security force members inspect the site of a car bomb attack in Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Monday. Two car bombings in the southern city of Basra, killing and wounding dozens of people, police said. Iraq has seen a spike of attacks, including bombings hitting both Sunni and Shiite civilian targets over the last week.

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After the death of more than 60 people in a series of car bombs today targeting Iraq's majority Shiite community and weeks of escalating sectarian attacks, many are wondering if the country's simmering sectarian tensions will tumble once again into all-out civil war.

The situation in Iraq is bad enough, as the attacks today make clear. Reuters reported there were two deadly blasts in the southern, largely Shiite city of Basra; 30 deaths in seven different blasts targeting Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad; and an attack on a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims near the town of Balad. 

This kind of violence, almost certainly carried out by Sunni militants, has ebbed and flowed for years in Iraq, without ever leading to large-scale sectarian bloodletting like that which occurred between 2005 and 2008, when tens of thousands of Iraqis were killed in fighting that transformed many of the mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad and other cities into entirely Shiite or Sunni enclaves. An Al Qaeda in Iraq attack on an important Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006 touched off reprisal killings across the country.

Many have long wondered what event could be Iraq's next Samarra. The good news, if any good news can be taken from a society still as divided and violent as Iraq today, is that the general population and political elites have consistently shied away from the worst. And while the current flare-up is almost certainly going to claim more lives, the odds of all-out war are probably low, going by the experience of the past few years.

 

To be sure, the current situation is bad. Last Friday, at least 76 people were killed in bombs targeting predominantly Sunni areas in Iraq. Those attacks followed close on the heels of attacks against Shiites earlier in the week. In April, more than 700 people were killed, one of the highest monthly death tolls since 2008.

The government of Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has taken a hard line against Sunni protesters, with a deadly government raid on a protest encampment in the town of Hawija claiming at least 50 lives and infuriating the country's Sunni minority.

That protest encampment, like similar ones in Anbar province, was inspired by a widespread feeling among Iraqi Sunnis that they have been completely cut out of meaningful power by the country's Shiite majority, that Mr. Maliki is running the country in the interest of his sect rather than all citizens, and that the security forces commit human rights abuses with impunity.

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While the worst of Iraq's fighting ended years ago, the national reconciliation that the US predicted would follow never occurred, leaving Iraq volatile and prone to violence. It has remained one of countries most beset by terrorism, and added to that volatile mix is the civil war in Syria, with many members of Al Qaeda in Iraq joining the fight against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad

What's more, powerful Sunni leaders in Anbar province – which borders Syria and was the center of the insurgency during the US occupation – are being hounded by the central government (fairly or unfairly it's hard to say). Joel Wing has a good roundup on Sunni leaders in Anbar province, and their various recent conflicts with the central government's security forces. Ominously, a number of the people he discusses had been involved in fighting Sunni insurgents on the side of the government and US forces just a few years ago.   

"The recent raids, kidnappings, and the end of the call for talks with the authorities can only add to this growing fire," Wing writes. "Even if the mainstream protest movement like the one in Ramadi attempts to remain peaceful, it is apparent that more and more people in the governorate are at least open to the passive if not active support for attacks upon the security forces."

With all this, it's pretty easy to predict the worst. But Iraqis were so badly scarred by the sectarian civil war, with so much lost on every side, that it's hard to imagine the wildfire catching again soon. While average Iraqis have suffered due to a weak economy, both Shiite and Sunni political leaders have profited handsomely from high oil prices in recent years, and have little to gain from all-out warfare that would almost certainly end in the same result as last time: with the country's majority Shiite population still in the driver seat. 

Make no mistake. Iraq's situation is grim. But the country has repeatedly pulled back from the brink in recent years. And there's a good chance that it will again.

 

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