BAGHDAD, Iraq—Zeena Ahmed, a Shiite Muslim who lives in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood in western Baghdad, has come up with a plan if a Sunni mob attacks her family. She'll run to the back of the house, scream for help and hope to escape slaughter. She's certain the attack will come.
Alaa al Badri, a Sunni who lives in a Shiite neighborhood in southern Baghdad, has a hard time forgiving himself for not going to the streets with a gun last week when he heard the local Sunni imam calling for help on a loudspeaker, saying that the mosque was under attack. He'd have gone, al Badri said, but he was worried that his Shiite neighbors would slip into his home and murder his wife and children.
More than a week after the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra ignited sectarian fighting that left hundreds dead and dozens of mosques burned, the continued violence and mistrust have made it clear that Iraq's multiethnic society has ruptured and won't soon heal.
Scores of Iraqis like Ahmed and al Badri now cower in their homes, hoping that the next major bombing doesn't provoke unrestrained violence. Interviews last week with ordinary Iraqis, top Iraqi officials and analysts made it clear that the nation, almost three years after the U.S. invasion, is teetering: As politicians stumble to form a unified government almost three months after national elections, hatred and fighting are pushing the nation toward civil war.
Many Iraqis interviewed by Knight Ridder said they're worried that the attack on the Askariya shrine—which houses the remains of two of Shiite Islam's 12 imams—pushed the fight beyond Sunni attacks on Shiites and Shiite militias who are killing Sunnis toward a sustained sectarian war that could last for years.
The commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, Army Gen. George W. Casey, said Friday that religious and ethnic violence is waning after the Samarra bombing and the threat of civil war appears to be receding for now.
The changing character of the conflict could render U.S. strategy irrelevant, however. To date, American forces mainly have fought the Sunni insurgency in a guerrilla war in central and western Iraq. That's far different than having to pick sides in or quell full-blown civil strife.
"If things go further, we are not too concerned about our protection, due to the security of our bases, but hunkering down is no way to fight an insurgency or stop a civil war," a senior U.S. military official in the region said in an e-mail exchange. The official asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "Bottom line: We aren't structured for a civil war, either in troop strength or disposition. It would be a new ballgame."
Before the Samarra bombing, repeated calls for restraint from the leading Shiite cleric in the country, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, seemed to keep reprisals under control, despite bombings that have killed thousands of innocents in Shiite neighborhoods since 2003.
But when images of the revered Askariya shrine, its huge golden dome turned to rubble, spread through Iraq late last month, chaos followed, despite Sistani's calls for peaceful demonstrations.
The reaction resulted from "an accumulation of frustration during three years of daily car bombs, daily suicide bombs, (insurgents) attacking mosques ... without giving the people the hope there is an end to that, as if they have to live with it," said Adel Abdul-Mahdi, one of Iraq's two vice presidents and an influential member of one of the most powerful Shiite political groups.
The tit-for-tat violence continued last week:
_ On Monday, a roadside bomb in southeast Baghdad killed four people and wounded 18 near a Sunni mosque.
_ On Tuesday, more than 65 people were killed and at least 150 were injured by a suicide bomber wearing a vest packed with explosives and a series of car bombs in Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad. That same day, Iraqi army troops reported finding nine bodies north of Baghdad, including a Sunni tribal sheik and two of his nephews who had been shot to death.
_ On Thursday, at least 36 Iraqis were killed in violence that included a bombing in a mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad and a car bomb in a Shiite slum.
Sectarian clashes on the streets have provoked unsettling confrontations at the highest levels of government.
On Wednesday, Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a Shiite who has connections to one of the nation's most feared Shiite militias, appeared on national television and complained that government troops were shot by guards at the house of Harith al Dari, Iraq's most powerful hard-line Sunni cleric.
Jabr promised to send more troops to al Dari's house to seek justice.
"We are coming to them very soon, God willing," Jabr said. "We tell them this on TV so they can understand that we are not afraid and that we are coming. We are coming."
Abdul Salam al Qubaisi, an official in al Dari's Muslim Scholars Association, answered, also on national television: "All brothers should protect their mosques."
The United States is finding it harder to be diplomatically effective in this environment of open ethnic confrontation.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, has twisted arms to promote a coalition government of Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds as an antidote to the strife. But since the Dec. 15 election, Iraq's leaders have bickered and floundered over how to form the government.
Khalilzad "can try to create the environment and get individual concessions, but he can't create a dynamic process. Only the Iraqis can do that," said Jon B. Alterman, the director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington.
Some of Iraq's leaders appear to be reaching out. Although the Sunnis walked away from government negotiations after the bombing, they later said they were willing to return.
Alterman said that if Iraq's leaders can't form a government that lessens the violence, the public will lose hope in the political process. In that case, any inhibitions against ethnic groups and their militias taking matters into their own hands could disappear.
"In the next two weeks or so, we will know if this government is relevant," Alterman said. "We will know if there is a political solution to this or not."
Anwar al Shimarti, a Shiite leader in the southern town of Najaf, said in a phone interview last week that the desire for revenge, and not politics, seemed to be gaining ground.
"We held a conference for the tribal sheiks of the middle Euphrates area and the sheiks' ... spirits were boiling inside," said al Shimarti, of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, a leading Shiite political party. "They wanted to seek vengeance—their hearts are angry and full of revolt—and they want revenge."
(Knight Ridder special correspondents Huda Ahmed and Shatha Al Awsy in Baghdad and Qassim Mohammed in Najaf contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.