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Threat of civil war in Iraq averted for now, U.S. commander says

WASHINGTON—Religious and ethnic violence in Iraq is waning after last week's bombing of an important Shiite Muslim shrine, and the threat of civil war appears to have receded for now, the top American commander in Baghdad said Friday.

Even so, terrorists still are trying to derail the formation of a new unity government and to incite further violence, said Gen. George W. Casey, the commander of multinational forces in Iraq.

"It appears that the crisis has passed, but we should be clear that Iraqis remain under the threat of terrorist attack by those who will stop at nothing to undermine the formation of this constitutionally elected government of national unity and a government that represents all Iraqis," Casey said in a teleconference.

Baghdad was sealed off under a strict curfew Friday, the Muslim holy day, and police reported that Sunni Muslim gunmen had killed at least 19 people, mostly Shiites, at a brick factory near Baghdad. That attack Thursday night in Nahrawan, southeast of Baghdad, was one of the worst incidents of the violence that's swept central Iraq since terrorists blew up Samarra's Askariya mosque Feb. 22, setting off reprisal bombings and killings between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis.

Casey said that about 350 Iraqi civilians had been killed in the past 10 days. Though he maintained that violence across Iraq didn't increase substantially after the bombing, he said that another major attack, especially on a religious site, could ignite more violence and possibly a civil war.

But as long as the U.S.-led coalition forces stay in the country and Iraqis remain committed to forming a national unity government, "I think the chances of that are not good," he said.

However, 11 weeks after parliamentary elections, Iraqi politicians still are squabbling over the formation of a new government.

In the aftermath of the Samarra bombing, there was widespread concern that Iraq's security forces could splinter along ethnic and religious lines, but so far police and army units have remained intact. Casey said he wasn't "overly concerned" about those forces fragmenting as long as coalition troops remained in the country.

During fighting with Shiite militias in 2004, many Iraqi police and army units either collapsed or joined fighters who were battling U.S. troops. But this time was different, Casey said.

"The militias didn't take over anything, or if they did, it was quite fleeting," he said. "And when the Iraqi security forces by and large showed up, they, by and large, yielded control."

Casey said he'd seen no indication that the number of foreign fighters coming into Iraq had increased since the Samarra bombing. There were 17 suicide bombings in February, compared with 60 to 70 a month last spring and summer, an indication that the influx of foreigners joining up with Sunni insurgents had slowed. He credited stronger border defenses from Jordan to Turkey.

U.S. forces in Iraq number around 133,000, and top military officials have suggested that there could be significant reductions this year if Iraqi soldiers and police take over more of the fight against insurgents and provide overall security.

"We'll see how this plays out over the coming weeks and months," Casey said.


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): George Casey