Latest Iraqi Violence Tied To Ethnic Strife

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NPR's Deborah Amos talks to Madeleine Brand about the primary causes of instability in Iraq today. The latest wave of bombings in the country was likely the work of al-Qaida in Iraq and other Islamist extremist groups. But Baghdad analysts say a greater threat is the growing friction between the Iraqi government and the Kurds.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Those Iraqis in El Cajon fled the kind of violence we're seeing more of in Iraq these days. Just today, there was another suicide bombing. At least 20 people were killed in an attack on a coffee shop in a town near the border with Syria.

Over the past few days, Iraq has been through the worst surge of violence since U.S. combat troops withdrew from Iraqi cities in June, raising some questions about the Iraqi army's ability to secure the country in the long run.

NPR's Deborah Amos joins us now from Baghdad.

And, Deb, last month, violence was down in Iraq. Not anymore. What's going on?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, that's what a lot of Iraqis are asking. It's important to know that most of these dramatic attacks have been against the Shiite community.

Now, the prime minister has been on television. He's assuring Iraqis he can do everything he can. But at the same time, he's warned Iraqis that there's a national election coming in January. They have to expect more violence. He says this is an attempt by militant groups to rekindle the sectarian war.

But I have to say that these attacks, both in the capitol and in Mosul, also show these underlying tensions that are still in the country - they haven't been resolved - between the Iraqi Arabs and the Kurds, as well as the Sunnis and the Shiites.

BRAND: Deb, you said most of these attacks are against Shiites. And what does that mean to you and who's waging those attacks?

AMOS: Well, the prime minister himself is a Shiite. It's the majority community here. And the assumption is that it is Sunni militants, either al-Qaida or the Sunni insurgency, that are waging these attacks. And the idea - and that's what the prime minister says - is to rekindle the sectarian violence that tore this country apart for two years.

BRAND: So, I guess that must raise some fears that Iraq will return to the dark days of 2006 and 2007.

AMOS: People worry about it. But what's been interesting to watch here is there's a real effort by Shiite religious leaders to counsel restraint, and they talk about it at the Friday prayers. Nobody really does want to go back to the bad old days.

What is new, and I guess perhaps encouraging, is that some of the tensions are playing out politically. You know, for example, in parliament, it's Sunni lawmakers who have condemned the violence against the Shiites. They're the ones who are demanding an investigation in the government security forces, and they have been questioning the prime minister's judgment on security, and asking are we ready for the Americans to withdraw.

Now, as I said, there's a national election coming in January, so some of this is electioneering against a powerful and a popular prime minister. And the big question is: are these political parties going to be exclusively sectarian, as they were in 2005, or will parties cross sectarian lines? So some of this is now becoming political.

BRAND: And, Deb, you're talking to a lot of Americans there - maybe on the record, maybe off the record, on background - what are they telling you in terms of their thoughts about the abilities of the Iraqi army, as I've said in the intro, to keep the peace?

AMOS: In the cities, there has been a real step-up in security. And traffic has been horrible today, as there's been plenty of checkpoints.

The north is a different story. Mosul is a tinderbox because that is a place where you see the Sunni Arab and Kurd dispute playing out. There's a power struggle there, and it's - there's a fight over territory, which both sides claim that is theirs.

It's the Americans who are kind of the referee in this dispute. And the commander up there said this week that the Arab-Kurd dispute is the most dangerous one in the country, and he said it could lead to what he called ethnic lethal force engagement, which doesn't sound very good.

BRAND: It does not. Deb, thank you.

AMOS: Thank you.

BRAND: That's NPR's Deborah Amos, joining us from Baghdad.

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