Below are the two most recent reports from Iraq by Los Angeles Times correspondent Borzou Daragahi, a former freelancer whose excellent work has led to his rise to the position of Baghdad bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. -- He also maintains a web site of his own. -- On Monday, Daragahi reported that "Months of bloodshed threatened to loosen the bonds holding together Iraq's fractious government." -- After the beheaded bodies of 26 Shiite farmers were found in the area of Balad, Shiite gunmen "marauded through the farming hub of Balad," north of Baghdad, and "randomly killed Sunni men in the market, hospitals, and a used-car lot." -- While most U.S. mainstream media refuse to use the term "civil war," Daragahi wrote that "Many Iraqis call the waves of violence a civil war tempered only by the ongoing political process." -- Also contributing to political divisions is the struggle for Iraq's oil: "Sunni Arabs suspect that Shiites have agreed to cede the northern oil hub of Kirkuk to autonomy-minded Kurds in exchange for support of an oil-rich Shiite southern region." -- On Tuesday, Daragahi reported that the situation around Balad has taken a grave turn for the worse, despite a U.S. effort to impose a curfew: "Gunmen wearing Iraqi police uniforms kidnapped 13 carloads of Shiite Muslims Monday from the town of Balad . . . Meanwhile, witnesses reported that large groups of gunmen carrying AK-47s and rocket launchers were flooding Sunni Arab areas east of Balad, setting up checkpoints and military positions in the villages of Nibai and Ksarat in anticipation of more attacks." -- Rumors are spreading that the U.S. may back a coup by former premier Ayad Allawi, a strongman figure with longtime CIA backing: "Amid rumors that the U.S. would back a change in the government of Iraq, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi a onetime CIA operative and secular pro-American favorite of U.S. Embassy officials arrived this week in Iraq, where he rarely makes an appearance, though he heads a 25-seat parliamentary bloc." ...
The Conflict in Iraq
GOVERNMENT FISSURES WIDENING
By Borzou Daragahi
** Relations between the main Sunni and Shiite political blocs worsen as Iraq takes a step toward federalism and sectarian violence persists **
Los Angeles Times
October 16, 2006
BAGHDAD -- Months of bloodshed have threatened to loosen the bonds holding together Iraq's fractious government, with tensions between political blocs spilling out in recent days in fiery rhetoric as well as fighting that left more than 130 people dead nationwide.
Disagreements over several contentious issues burst into the open with a highly divisive vote on the issue of parceling Iraq into federal districts, finger-pointing over the assassination of a top politician's brother, and a series of massacres between rival Shiite Muslims and Sunni Arabs north of the capital.
There, among the lush palm groves and towns along the Tigris River, at least 73 people were killed in sectarian violence over the weekend. Shiite gunmen, seeking revenge for the beheadings of 26 farmers whose bodies were found in Sunni villages, marauded through the farming hub of Balad, about 50 miles north of the capital, officials said.
The assailants randomly killed Sunni men in the market, hospitals and a used-car lot, the officials said, and 12 victims reportedly burned to death. An Iraqi army source said a total of 47 people were killed.
Sunni tribesmen in farms outside Balad lobbed mortar rounds into the Shiite-dominated town and armed themselves for further fighting, said residents of the Sunni village of Duluiya. U.S. forces imposed a curfew on the area.
Meanwhile, authorities awaited news of the fate of several groups of Shiite men kidnapped from minibuses over the weekend on their way out of the nearby Shiite village of Dujayl.
Also Sunday, six car bomb explosions killed about 10 people and injured dozens around the northern city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by Arabs as well as ethnic Kurds who inhabit a semiautonomous section of northern Iraq.
In the capital, at least 52 Iraqis, including two children, were reported killed in shootings, rocket attacks, bombings, and clandestine sectarian slayings.
Three U.S. solders were killed Saturday when their vehicle was caught in the blast of a homemade bomb south of Baghdad, the military said, disclosing no further details. At least 52 U.S. military personnel died in Iraq during the first two weeks of the month, putting October on pace to be the deadliest for U.S. troops in the country since January 2005.
Iraq's Sunni insurgents are fighting a guerrilla war against American forces and the U.S.-backed Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated government. Shiite gunmen, with possible ties to powerful political parties, fight back by killing suspected insurgents and ordinary Sunnis alike. Many Iraqis call the waves of violence a civil war tempered only by the ongoing political process.
But relations between the main Sunni and Shiite political blocs also have worsened over the last week. On Sunday, the government indefinitely postponed a highly publicized conference to discuss reconciliation among Iraq's disparate groups. According to a news release, the conference, scheduled to begin Saturday, was canceled for unspecified "emergency reasons."
Acrimony among the country's major ethnic and religious groups swelled after the Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated parliament passed a law Wednesday allowing for the eventual division of Iraq into federal regions. The vote came despite the strenuous objections of Sunnis, who view the plan as a recipe for carving up Iraq.
Sunni Arabs suspect that Shiites have agreed to cede the northern oil hub of Kirkuk to autonomy-minded Kurds in exchange for support of an oil-rich Shiite southern region. About 500 mostly Sunni Arab tribal leaders attending a summit in northern Iraq on Sunday vowed to fight any federal partitioning of the country, which they fear might further impoverish Sunnis in the resource-poor central and western regions.
"We are demanding that the government and the parliament not force this matter on Iraq and its people," said Sheik Abdul-Rahman Asi. "There are many political forces that reject this matter."
Relations between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite political blocs seem to have reached a nadir.
Earlier in the day, the Iraqi Islamic Party, a major Sunni group, issued a statement all but accusing the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry in the Oct. 9 slaying of Amer Hashimi. He was the brother of Tariq Hashimi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents and the Sunni bloc's leader.
"The cars that broke through the [Iraqi army] checkpoints were new military cars and there were people inside wearing military uniforms," the statement said. "This is available only to the militias that are cooperating with the security apparatuses."
Shiite officials have accused Sunni insurgents in Hashimi's killing, noting that he lived in an area under the control of the Sunni-dominated Defense Ministry. In a televised speech Sunday evening, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, while acknowledging the need to disband unruly militias that support him, blamed Iraq's problems on Sunni "terrorists."
U.S. and Iraqi officials had hoped the ongoing political process in the wake of elections last December would lower tensions and help ease the violence, but some now worry that the political and religious leaders have exacerbated problems.
"There's a sectarian conflict going on now between the Sunnis and Shiites," said Isam Rawi of the Sunni Muslim Scholars Assn., a clerical group. "But the religious and political discourse has a great effect in elevating these fights. It's not easy to target or kill or displace somebody unless somebody tells you those people are infidels or collaborators."
SECTARIAN BUTCHERY GOES UNCHECKED
By Borzou Daragahi
Los Angeles Times
October 17, 2006
Gunmen wearing Iraqi police uniforms kidnapped 13 carloads of Shiite Muslims Monday from the town of Balad, north of the capital, officials said today, fueling an outbreak of sectarian violence that has shaken the country.
Meanwhile, witnesses reported that large groups of gunmen carrying AK-47s and rocket launchers were flooding Sunni Arab areas east of Balad, setting up checkpoints and military positions in the villages of Nibai and Ksarat in anticipation of more attacks.
The continued escalation of sectarian warfare in the lush farming district 50 miles north of the capital came despite efforts by U.S. forces to help the Iraqi military impose order in the region.
[FOR THE RECORD: Iraq Bloodshed: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the kidnappings occurred today. They happened on Monday.]
Violence in the area broke out after at least 17 Shiites were kidnapped and beheaded beginning Friday. The next day, Shiite militiamen abducted and executed dozens of Sunni residents, occasionally pulling people from their cars and torching their bodies. Sunnis began firing rockets into the mostly Shiite town, killing at least half a dozen people.
U.S. military officials tallied at least 63 killed in fighting between Shiite and Sunni villagers around Balad over a 96-hour period. Witnesses and police gave higher casualty estimates.
Elsewhere, at least 37 Iraqis were killed and 42 were injured in violence around the country. Among those gunned down were a female gynecologist in Basra and a Kurdish politician in Mosul.
Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority and once-dominant Sunni Arabs have been locked in civil warfare. Hundreds of bodies have been found scattered around the country's religiously mixed central provinces each week.
Much to the frustration of U.S. officials and the Iraqi public, the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has been unable to stop the violence or rein in shadowy militia groups that answer to powerful parties in his coalition.
Amid rumors that the U.S. would back a change in the government of Iraq, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi -- a onetime CIA operative and secular pro-American favorite of U.S. Embassy officials -- arrived this week in Iraq, where he rarely makes an appearance, though he heads a 25-seat parliamentary bloc.
"His presence is important during this period because the country is passing a crucial stage during which all leaders of political movements and the politicians must be present in the country," said Wael Abdulatif, a member of Allawi's coalition.
Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein, on trial for genocide in a well-guarded Baghdad courtroom, accused his accusers of fanning sectarian and ethnic divisions and gave a spirited defense of his deposed government.
"Any real Iraqi of blood and heart, no matter what he thought of our regime, knows our state was a real state, a real regime," he said, adding that the sectarian violence gripping the country would have never happened during his rule.
--Staff writer Raheem Salman in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, and Samarra contributed to this report.