WASHINGTON—A struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslim extremists seeking to control Baghdad has eclipsed the Sunni insurgency against U.S.-led coalition forces and is spreading to other parts of the country, the Pentagon said Friday.
More than 300 Iraqis have died in sectarian violence this week, including 64 who were killed in a series of coordinated attacks Thursday night in Baghdad, which has been the target of a U.S.-Iraqi campaign to improve security.
In its latest quarterly report to Congress on conditions in Iraq, the Defense Department says Iraqi casualties grew by more than 50 percent in the three months that ended in early August. The 63-page report concluded that while the sustained violence between ethnic and religious groups is now the greatest threat to Iraq's security and stability and could lead to civil war, the Sunni insurgency remains "potent and viable."
"Conditions that could lead to civil war exist in Iraq, specifically in and around Baghdad, and concern about civil war within the Iraqi civilian population has increased in recent months," it says.
Attacks against coalition and Iraqi security forces, civilians and infrastructure have almost doubled in the last two years, from about 400 a week in April-June 2004 to nearly 800 a week in the last three months. The number of attacks per week in July was the highest since the war began, the report says.
Previous reports tended to describe steady progress in Iraq, and the sobering new assessment was released just as President Bush and his aides have launched a campaign to bolster public support for the war before the November congressional elections.
The shift toward sectarian violence has occurred largely since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February. The violence has been characterized by a sharp rise in kidnappings, executions and bombings. Most of it has occurred in and around Baghdad between rival Sunni Arab and Shiite groups.
"Sectarian violence is gradually spreading north into Diyala province and Kirkuk as Sunni, Shi'a, and Kurdish groups compete for provincial influence," the report says.
More than 60 percent of the attacks are aimed at coalition troops, but attacks on civilians are rising and now constitute about 15 percent of the total. Sunni and Shiite death squads are responsible for most of the rise in sectarian violence, according to the report.
Recently, about 2,000 Iraqi civilians have died each month in sectarian violence, compared with about 1,000 in February.
Executions reached new highs in July. The Baghdad coroner's office reported that month that 90 percent of the 1,800 bodies it had received were those of people who'd been executed.
The killing in June of Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an ally of al-Qaida, "has dealt a significant blow" to the group al-Qaida in Iraq, although it continues to operate in small cells and has been focused on attacking Shiite civilians and a "retaliatory cycle of violence" against elements of the al Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia allied with radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr. The Mahdi Army is thought to be responsible for most Shiite death-squad activity, the report says.
Peter Rodman, the assistant secretary of defense for international security, said the Pentagon didn't think that Iraq was in a civil war since the country had a functioning government that included all ethnic and religious groups.
The report says conditions for civil war are present but that the conflict doesn't meet "stringent international and legal standards" that define civil war. It didn't identify those standards.
"There are differing opinions among the intelligence community and other places as how best to describe it," said Adm. Bill Sullivan, the vice director for strategic plans and policy on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "I think it's fair to say . . . that many of the preconditions do exist. We're not turning a blind eye to that."
Sullivan said that most of the operations being carried out by U.S. and Iraqi troops in Baghdad were aimed at curbing sectarian violence in order to defuse the threat of civil war.
The report on Iraq's security and stability is online at www.defenselink.mil/pubs/pdfs/Security-Stability-ReportAug29r1.pdf
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.