In Sunday's Scotland Herald, Nick Meo reported on the mood in Baghdad.  --  Many believe that all-out civil war is at hand, he said: "Constant curfews have kept the lid on the violence -- just -- but Iraqis wonder how much longer things can continue like this before there is a descent into something much worse. In a land awash with guns, explosives, bombmakers, fighters, and ruthless leaders who are now plotting how to take their share of power, the horrors of a meltdown are unthinkable but seem very close at hand."  --  "[C]onflict could be much more complex than Sunni versus Shia, with signs that rival Shia militias and politicians would fight each other."  --  But some still maintain frail hopes:  "Iraq’s pragmatic tribal leaders and politicians might be able to broker some kind of power-sharing arrangement that shares the oil wealth without too much killing.  --  But for ordinary Baghdadis wondering if hell is about to be unleashed, that is a tenuous hope to which to cling." ...

BAGHDAD: CITY OF FEAR
By Nick Meo

** ‘In a land awash with guns, explosives and fighters, the horrors of a meltdown are unthinkable and close at hand’ **

Sunday Herald (Scotland, UK)
March 5, 2006

http://www.sundayherald.com/54460

BAGHDAD -- Before the elections in December, which Western politicians repeatedly described as historic, there was real hope in Iraq that the future would be better than the terrible present. The peaceful, democratic nation which America and Britain and many Iraqis have spent so much blood and treasure struggling to create from the wreckage of Saddam’s toppled dictatorship seemed almost within grasp.

Now, after two weeks of bloodletting and a growing sense of paralysis in the political process, a new emotion has replaced hope: fear.

Iraqis are not sure whether their long agony will now take the form of a sectarian civil war, perhaps of the most brutal and costly kind. But they are talking about little else.

“I think it is coming, civil war,” said Ali, a Shia taxi driver who didn’t want to give his real name.

“The situation is getting worse and worse.” He had been forced from his home in a Sunni area a few months ago. But he knows many people who have suffered much worse fates.

If civil war happens the past two weeks have given Iraqis a terrifying glimpse of what they must expect.

Violence is no longer just a matter of attacks by insurgents on coalition troops and Iraqi government forces. Now, with plans being drawn up for U.S. and British troops to begin to pull out of the country, the three main cultural traditions -- Shia, Sunni, and Kurds -- each fearful of the others, are manoeuvring for power and the result is bloody.

The flashpoint was the bomb attack on a revered Shia shrine in the town of Samarra, clearly designed to provoke a furious response.

Since then hundreds have died -- perhaps as many as 1300 according to one estimate -- mostly murdered by death squads linked to Shia militias. Sunni mosques have been bombed and burned.

And Sunni insurgents have responded with attacks in Shia areas. They have blown up minibuses full of commuters, possibly using suicide bombers, and set off car bombs in Shia streets. On March 1, when the situation was supposedly calming down, 69 people died.

In one area on one of Iraq’s numerous ethnic faultlines, insurgents rounded up 25 impoverished Shia brick kiln workers just south of Baghdad and shot them in their heads. A girl of six was the youngest to die. A bomb in a market yesterday killed seven.

Constant curfews have kept the lid on the violence -- just -- but Iraqis wonder how much longer things can continue like this before there is a descent into something much worse. In a land awash with guns, explosives, bombmakers, fighters, and ruthless leaders who are now plotting how to take their share of power, the horrors of a meltdown are unthinkable but seem very close at hand.

The real problem is political. The politicians elected in December still haven’t formed the new government that is supposed to bring national unity and reconstruction. They are at loggerheads over the Shia choice for prime minister. Somehow they have to work out a system which is acceptable to Iraq’s patchwork of ethno-religious groups, but that is starting to look like mission impossible.

The majority Shia were poor and marginalized before, but are now able to dominate a democratic Iraq by force of numbers. The Sunni were the rulers under Saddam Hussein and now face losing power, which is why so many back the insurgency. The Kurds will hold the balance of power in the national assembly.

The struggle between these groups looks less and less like being resolved in parliament, and more and more as if it will be fought out on the streets.

If that happens, conflict could be much more complex than Sunni versus Shia, with signs that rival Shia militias and politicians would fight each other.

In the election -- to the despair of American officials, who still dream of a pro-U.S. Arab democracy in the heart of the Middle East -- Iraqis voted along ethnic and sectarian lines. Now, as fear of the other side grows, there are signs that militias are taking things into their own hands.

In Sadr City, the giant Shia slum in Baghdad, the Madhi army has elbowed the Iraqi army out of the way to take over security. Their gunmen were blamed for carrying out many of the sectarian killings. Neighbourhood vigilante groups are mushrooming. Shia families are being forced out of majority Sunni areas, and Sunnis are fleeing from districts where they are the minority.

Iraqis who had clung to the hope of peace look at what is happening now with something like despair.

After the massacre of brick kiln workers, Ismail Zayer, editor-in-chief of the Al-Sabah al-Jadeed newspaper, said: “This is a way of maintaining civil war. Six months ago I was optimistic, but I really fear what is happening now.”

But hope is not yet completely dead. Most Iraqi leaders do not want to fight each other, at least not until U.S. and coalition forces pull out, and most Iraqi people do not hate their neighbours or want bloodletting. Iraq’s leaders have become used to pulling back from the brink, and the knowledge of how terrible civil war would be concentrates minds grasping for a solution.

Iraq’s pragmatic tribal leaders and politicians might be able to broker some kind of power-sharing arrangement that shares the oil wealth without too much killing.

But for ordinary Baghdadis wondering if hell is about to be unleashed, that is a tenuous hope to which to cling.