Iraq on the brink

IT WOULD BE ODDLY REASSURING if Al Qaeda were behind Wednesday’s hideous bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra. That would leave a shard of hope that civil war in Iraq might still be averted. If the bombers are ever found, and if they prove to be the same Sunni rejectionists who seem hellbent on inflaming Shiite rage, Iraq’s sectarian strife may soon make the 15-year Lebanese civil war seem almost quaint.

As British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw remarked, the bombing bore the hallmark of an Al Qaeda attack: nihilism. It’s hard to imagine what purpose the bombing of one of the holiest Shiite shrines could serve other than to incite a civil war. Alas, the bombers appear to be succeeding. The violence is worsening; Shiites have retaliated by burning Sunni mosques by the score; and the strife is spreading across Iraq.

The political portents are also ominous. The Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni bloc in parliament, has pulled out of negotiations on the formation of a new Iraqi government. Sunni and Shiite leaders are busy blaming each other and the United States.

Whatever the United States could have done to prevent this predictable (and predicted) crisis, its power to play peacemaker now is distinctly limited. The State Department can ask Iraq’s neighbors to appeal for calm and urge them not to back their respective Iraqi factions in a bloodletting. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey can be reminded of how much they stand to lose if Iraq disintegrates.


But the best hopes for a solution lie beyond Washington. And none will become a reality very soon.

King Abdullah of Jordan compromised his ability to play peacemaker by warning of a “Shiite crescent” across the Middle East on the eve of the Iraqi election in January 2005. But Saudi Arabia could offer to mediate between Iraqi Shiite and Sunni leaders. Turkey, Syria, Iran and the U.S. could warn the Kurds against the delusion that an Iraqi civil war may bring about an independent Kurdistan. (The Kurds themselves could help broker a Shiite-Sunni compromise.)

And Iran’s leaders, in the midst of a nuclear confrontation with the West, could show their willingness to become responsible global citizens by using their influence to support Iraq’s elected government and press the radical cleric Muqtada Sadr and other Shiite factions to calm down.

This shouldn’t be taken as an invitation to meddle in Iraqi domestic politics. Rather, it’s an invitation to help prevent a bloodbath at the heart of the Islamic world.


But those in the most influential position -- perhaps the only people who can avert a conflagration in Iraq -- are Sunni and Shiite religious leaders across the Muslim world. Could the clerics of Qom (the Iranian Shiite religious mecca), who are not linked to the hard-line leadership in Tehran, issue a fatwa against Muslim-on-Muslim violence? Could Sunni imams across the Muslim world agitate for a peaceful, political resolution in Iraq? Is it impolite for infidels like us to point out that, to many Muslims, Islam means “peace”?