Iraq Violence Kills More Than 200 in a Week

More than 200 deaths in Iraq in the past week are blamed on insurgent attacks. Military analysts expect a high level of violence in the coming months, as Iraq tries to seat a newly elected parliament.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Attacks by Iraqi insurgents have killed more than 200 people over the past week. It's a violent start to the month after elections that were intended, in part, to diminish support for insurgents.

INSKEEP: In a moment, we'll meet one leader of Sunni Arabs, the group the US wants to bring into politics and out of violence. We start with some numbers from NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren.

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

The brief lull in violence around the December 15th elections ended with a series of bloody insurgent attacks. The daily tallies of dead keep mounting: 50 last Wednesday when a suicide bomber struck a Shiite funeral north of Baghdad; 130 on Thursday as suicide bombers struck police recruits in Ramadi and Shiite pilgrims in Karbala; and 29 on Monday when a suicide bomber struck Iraqi police in Baghdad. The former top ground commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, warned troops en route to Iraq last week that, in his words, `the country is on the verge of a civil war.' Military analyst Anthony Cordesman says the current spate of attacks is led almost entirely by fighters from the Sunni Muslim minority that dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein, with help from a small number of foreign extremists. The victims are mostly from the Shiite majority; although many Sunnis have also been killed by shadowy militias apparently settling old scores.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Military Analyst): When you talk to people in the theater, it's not politically correct, but everybody says there is a civil war. What we see is effectively a civil conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, with the Kurds, to some extent, on the margin of this conflict.

HENDREN: Military strategists say the insurgents have two goals: first, undermining the Iraq government by attacking police and other authorities, and second, fomenting a civil war by attacking large gatherings of Shiites and any Sunnis bold enough to cooperate with the government. But the current top commander in Iraq, General George Casey, told CNN that it's going too far to say that Iraq is tilting towards civil war.

(Soundbite from CNN)

General GEORGE CASEY: There clearly are sectarian tensions and these attacks of the past days I believe have been intended by the foreign fighters and the Iraqis that are supporting them to foment sectarian tension during a vulnerable period of the formation of the government. But I don't think it's on the brink of civil war.

HENDREN: Military strategists expect insurgents to continue their relentless violence in the coming months to broaden sectarian divides in the country as political leaders try to form a new government of national unity. Cordesman, with The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says each step toward a new government gives insurgents an opportunity.

Mr. CORDESMAN: Attacks at the right time or attacks on the right leaders might break up this political process, so as we look down the line at 2006, it's virtually certain that we're going to see one period after another in which the insurgents peak in their effort to paralyze the political process, divide the country and even push it towards civil war.

HENDREN: Andrew Krepinevich is executive director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. He says the Sunni insurgents are not trying to win hearts and minds because they don't plan to overcome the American occupation and the newly elected Iraqi government through a popular uprising.

Mr. ANDREW KREPINEVICH (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments): Their path to power is really through a coup, somewhat similar to the Russian revolution, where Lenin and a small band of dedicated Bolsheviks took control of the largest country in the world, because it was in a condition of chaos.

HENDREN: General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says the Pentagon is relying largely on the Iraqi government, especially the army and police, to keep violence down.

General PETER PACE (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): I do believe that over the course of the coming year, that violence will subside. But clearly, there is enough munitions scattered around that country still that the capacity to attack will be there. The difference will be the ability of the Iraqi armed forces and Iraqi police to maintain order and the desire of Iraqi people to live a normal life.

HENDREN: Analyst Cordesman notes that the Iraqi police and army have problems of their own with ethnic tensions.

Mr. CORDESMAN: And the police, quite frankly, remain a mess. There are too many divisions along ethnic and sectarian lines, too many police units that aren't properly qualified or trained or would serve local interests rather than national interests. So this is still a very uncertain effort, in spite of all the progress.

HENDREN: The Pentagon is now revamping Iraqi police training after US troops recently discovered two jails where US commanders say the predominantly Shiite police tortured and starved Sunni prisoners. John Hendren, NPR News, Washington.

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