Iraq's 9/11, or a step toward civil war?

The bombing of a revered Shiite shrine sparks intense sectarian violence.

Published February 23, 2006 1:51PM (EST)

"This is as 9/11 in the United States."

That's how one Shiite leader, Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi, described the bombing of the golden-domed Askariya shrine in Samarra.

There's a difference, of course. The attacks of 9/11, carried out by foreigners, brought Americans closer together. The attack on the Askariya shrine, carried out amid sectarian fighting in Iraq, has ripped that country farther apart. In the wake of the bombing and the reprisals that have followed, the Associated Press says this morning that Iraqis are facing "the grim prospect of sectarian war," and both the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal warn that a full-scale civil war could erupt.

Could it get much worse?

Northeast of Baghdad, a government official told MSNBC that gunmen pulled workers off buses headed home from factory jobs, then killed 47 of them. In Basra, militiamen kidnapped 12 inmates from a prison, then executed them, in retaliation for the attack on the shrine. Near Samarra, three journalists were murdered, including a well-known correspondent for Al-Arabiya TV. In Baqouba this morning, eight Iraqi soldiers were killed as men attacked a Sunni mosque with hand grenades and machine guns. Iraqi security forces have been put on alert, and U.S. military officials have canceled all unnecessary travel in the country.

The Bush administration always cautions that the deaths of Iraqis and Americans are only part of the picture -- that it's important to consider the political process in the country as well. But this morning, the news on that front is scarcely better. As administration officials and Iraqi leaders call for calm, representatives of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni Arab faction in the new Iraqi government, said they would not participate in further talks with Kurdish and Shiite leaders until they receive an apology for reprisals against Sunni mosques. As the AP reports, the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars is claiming that 168 Sunni mosques have been attacked -- and 10 imams killed and an additional 15 abducted -- in the wake of the bombing of the Askariya shrine.

In Washington, George W. Bush issued a statement expressing condolences and condemnation but little in the way of optimism. "I ask all Iraqis to exercise restraint in the wake of this tragedy, and to pursue justice in accordance with the laws and Constitution of Iraq," the president said. "Violence will only contribute to what the terrorists sought to achieve by this act."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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