Prime minister Iyad Allawi has no answer for defense minister Hazem Shaalan‘s forebodings about the dim prospects of averting a civil war after the January 30 general election. Vice president, al-Dawa leader Ibrahim al-Jafari shares this view. Indeed, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources, most politicians in Baghdad are talking resignedly about a Sunni-Shiite conflict in the offing with quiet preparations already in train.
Allawi and Shaalan do not venture such opinions in public, but they regard the way senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has predetermined the outcome of the general election so as to drive the Sunni community to the fringes of power has rendered this conflict inevitable. Neither Allawi nor most American Iraqi experts see any way for the Sunnis to gain their due share of national assembly seats or a voice in the drafting of the new constitution. They will therefore have nothing to lose by going to war.
Sistani is thought to have based himself on this premise when he made exceptional concessions to the Kurdish minority, allowing them greater freedoms than they have ever enjoyed anywhere in the Middle East. The Shiite cleric wants this predominantly Sunni grouping to stay tucked away in northern Iraq, too preoccupied with establishing their self-government to take a hand in the coming showdown on the side of their Sunni coreligionists.
Sistani appears to be acting out a vision of revenge; for the first time in modern Iraqi history, he believes the Shiites will be strong enough to give the Sunnis a beating, punishment for the decades of repression, humiliation and massacre inflicted by Saddam Hussein.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources add that Sunni leaders are far from waiting passively for trouble to flare. In hundreds of small towns and villages, between Falluja and Mosul, thousands of Sunni combatants are training for war. In pre-election briefings, US and Iraqi intelligence officers are warned of terrorist units preparing to strike in the Baghdad region and its satellite towns to disrupt the elections. However, the scale of preparations in the Sunni districts is clearly geared to something much bigger.
Both intelligence agencies note the swelling of fighter and weapon traffic from Syria in the last few days. They estimate this influx is destined less for immediate terrorist attacks than for fortifying Sunni towns and villages. Sunni guerrillas together with Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi‘s followers are reported to have set up a new headquarters at Hit on the Euphrates.
The level and acrimony of Sunni-Shiite debate has also climbed dramatically, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Islam watchers. This week, al Zarqawi released an audiotape in which he forbade true Muslims to pray for the soul of an Iraqi voter killed by faithful believers on election-day because he is condemned as an heretic.
Baath leaflets circulating this week across the country vilify Shiites as having reverted to their natural forms as snakes and scorpions. The war of words between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis has begun.