A wave of sectarian strife and recrimination swept Iraq Thursday after Wednesday's bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra. The interior ministry said that more than 100 people have been killed in the violence.
Officials in Baghdad, struggling to restore order, expanded an existing curfew in an effort to get people off the streets after dark and canceled all leaves for Iraqi security forces.
The process of forming a new government also appeared to be in jeopardy, as some Sunni politicians, protesting what they said was a lack of protection for Sunni mosques attacked overnight, said they were pulling out of negotiations with Shiite parties.
There were a great number of disturbances reported across the country Wednesday night and Thursday, too many to accurately track let alone verify.
A lot of people have argued that civil war was inevitable, despite the propaganda of progress. One person who has always provided a calming influence during the various crises is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Unquestionably, the most powerful figure in Iraq, the fact that for the first time Sistani signals a preference for violence should serve as proof that the genie is out of the bottle:
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani was shown on Iraqiyah television meeting with the other 3 grand ayatollahs in Najaf, among whom he is first among equals. They include Bashir Najafi, Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad and Muhammad Sa`id al-Hakim. Sistani called for self-discipline and for peaceful demonstrations. He said Shiites must not attack Sunni mosques, but called for them to demonstrate peacefully. He laid responsibility for security on the Iraqi government, saying that it "is called today more than at any time in the past to shoulder its full responsibilities in stopping the series of criminal actions that have targeted holy spaces. If the security apparatuses are unable to safeguard against this crisis, the believers are able to do so, by the aid of God."
Astonishingly, Sistani seems to be threatening to deploy his own militia, Ansar Sistani, if the Iraqi government doesn't do a better job of protecting Shiites and their holy sites. One lesson Sistani will have taken from the bombing of the Askariyah shrine in Samarra is that he is not very secure in Najaf, either. But all we need in Iraq is yet another powerful private sectarian militia!
If Sistani abandons the political process, Iraq is lost. Sistani's demand that the Iraqi government needs to do a better job on security is a hopeless request, given the circumstances. The Iraqi government doesn't command an army or have the ability to offer any practical security. You can conclude that Sistani is acknowledging the failure of Iraq's government and moved passed a national ideal. Ditto for the Sunni elements, who have pulled out of political negotiations.
For all intent and purposes the civil war has started. Neither the coalition forces, or the Iraqi army, has shown any ability to stop terrorist strikes aimed at fueling sectarian tensions. There are now daily reports of militias carrying out revenge attacks. The level of hostility continually gains momentum, with no counter sentiments of good will to provide balance. When we look back at the last few days, it may serve as the watershed moment where Iraq finally passed the tipping point.