By Edward Bong & Kirk Semple. Reporting for this article was contributed by Eric Schmitt from Washington, Khalid W. Hassan from Baghdad, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Najaf (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 02/04/06):
AGHDAD, Iraq, April 1 — The war in Iraq has entered a bloodier phase, with the killings of Iraqi civilians rising tremendously in daily sectarian violence while American casualties have steadily declined, spurring tens of thousands of Iraqis to flee from mixed Shiite-Sunni areas.
The new pattern, detailed in casualty and migration statistics from the past six months and in interviews with American commanders and Iraqi officials, has led to further separation of Shiite and Sunni Arabs, moving the country toward a de facto partitioning along sectarian and ethnic lines — an outcome that the Bush administration has doggedly worked to avoid over the past three years.
The nature of the Iraq war has been changing since at least the late autumn, when political friction between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs rose even as American troops began implementing a long-term plan to decrease their street presence. But the killing accelerated after the bombing on Feb. 22 of a revered Shiite shrine, which unleashed a wave of sectarian bloodletting.
About 900 Iraqi civilians died violently in March, up from about 700 the month before, according to military statistics and the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, an independent organization that tracks deaths. Meanwhile, at least 29 American troops were killed in March, the second-lowest monthly total since the war began.
The White House says that little violence occurs in most of Iraq's 18 provinces. But those four or five provinces where the majority of the killings and migrations take place are Iraq's major population centers, generally mixed regions that include Baghdad, and contain much of the nation's infrastructure — crucial factors in Iraq's prospects for stability.
The Iraqi public's reaction to the violence has been dramatic. Since the shrine bombing, 30,000 to 36,000 Iraqis have fled their homes because of sectarian violence or fear of reprisals, say officials at the International Organization for Migration, based in Geneva. The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration estimated that at least 5,500 families have moved, with the biggest group being 1,250 families settling in the Shiite holy city of Najaf after leaving Baghdad and Sunni-dominated towns in central Iraq. The families are living with relatives or in abandoned buildings, and a crisis of food and water shortages is starting to build, officials say.
"We lived in Latifiya for 30 years," said Abu Hussein al-Ramahi, a Shiite farmer with a family of seven, referring to a village south of Baghdad that is a stronghold of the Sunni Arab insurgency. "But a month ago, two armed people with masks on their faces said if I stayed in this area, my family and I would no longer remain alive. They shot bullets near my feet. I went back home immediately and we left the area early next morning for Najaf." Mr. Ramahi's family and other migrants are now squatting in a derelict hotel in the holy city.
"It's almost a creeping polarization of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a military expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
In the chaos, he said, "We see a slow, steady loss of confidence, a growing process of distrust which you see day by day as people at the political level bicker. Everything has become sectarian and ethnic."
The shifts in violence and migration patterns are fueling discussion about whether Iraq is devolving into civil war. Although that determination may be impossible to make in the short term, the debate itself could increase the political pressure that President Bush is facing at home to draw down significantly the force of 133,000 American troops here. Even if American deaths keep falling, polls show the American public has little appetite for engagement in an Iraqi civil war.
Commanders in Iraq say the insurgent groups in the country, particularly Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, have shifted the focus of their attacks in an effort to foment civil war and undermine negotiations to form a four-year government. "What we are seeing him do now is shift his target from the coalition forces to Iraqi civilians and Iraqi security forces," said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, a senior spokesman for the American command. "The enemy is trying to stop the formation of this national unity government; he's trying to inflame sectarian violence."
Dozens of bodies, garroted or executed with gunshots to the head, are turning up almost daily in Baghdad alone. The gruesome work is usually attributed to death squads or Shiite militias, some in Iraqi police or army uniforms. Meanwhile, powerful bombings, a favorite tactic of the Sunni Arab-led insurgency, continue to devastate civilian areas and Iraqi bases or recruitment centers.
At the same time, the number of kidnappings of Iraqis is surging because of an explosion in criminal gangs working for their own gain or with armed political groups. Scores of civilians are abducted every week, usually for ransoms of $20,000 to $30,000. In recent weeks, masked men have stormed offices in Baghdad and hauled away all the workers.
It is not clear whether this change in the nature of the war is permanent. A wider anti-American offensive by the Sunni Arab insurgents or a Shiite rebellion could suddenly shift the brunt of violence back against the foreign forces, resulting in more American deaths, as when the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr ignited two uprisings in 2004.
But in the wake of the shrine bombing, Mr. Sadr's thousands-strong militia is focusing its wrath on Sunni Arabs; the militiamen are accused of killing hundreds in late February alone. As for the traditional insurgency, some hard-line Sunni Arab officials say the Sunnis are more concerned now about the growing power of religious Shiite leaders, their militias and Iran than about the American presence.
The results of the December elections showed that the religious Shiite coalition, backed by Iran, will almost certainly control the new government, and that the Sunni Arabs, no matter their participation in the vote, will face Shiite rule for years. That Sunni-Shiite tension sharpened when insurgents destroyed the golden dome of the Askariya shrine in Samarra in February, and vengeful Shiite militiamen rampaged through Baghdad and other cities.
At the same time, American commanders have decreased the number of patrols, to try to push the Iraqi security forces into a more visible role.
That, along with improved armor and bomb detection, may partly explain the drop in casualties. Last October, 96 American troops died. That number has decreased every month since then, but plummeted most sharply between February and March — to 29 in March from 55 in February.
In the same period, Iraqi civilian deaths generally increased, from 465 in October, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, which tallies deaths from a wide range of news media reports, a methodology believed to give rough though under-reported estimates.
The broad trend is also supported by statistics on number of attacks. A senior Pentagon official said the number of attacks on Americans, Iraqi forces and Iraqi civilians had remained at about 600 per week since last September.
But the focus of the attacks has shifted — in September, 82 percent of attacks were against American-led forces and 18 percent against Iraqis; in February, 65 percent were against the foreigners and 35 percent against Iraqis.
Top American officials are concerned that despite the growing number of trained and equipped Iraqi security forces being fielded, and the large number of insurgents killed or captured in the past six months, the number of overall attacks has not declined, the Defense Department official said.
"It should be worrisome to us that it's still at the same level," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the trend. "With the number of operations that are occurring and the number of people we are detaining growing, and truly with the number of tactical successes that we're having, you would expect to see a reduction in the trend."
American officials say the solution to the sectarian bloodshed lies in the Iraqis quickly forming a national unity government, with representatives of all major groups in Iraq checking each other through compromises.
But with each political milestone — the transfer of sovereignty in 2004, two sets of elections in 2005, the referendum on the constitution — the Americans have asserted that the country would stabilize. Instead, the violence has continued unabated, sometimes changing in nature, as it is doing now, but never declining.
If the Americans push too hard against one side or the other in an effort to clamp down on the violence, they risk losing political allies. American relations with Shiite leaders have soured in recent months, partly over Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's insistence that the Shiite militias be disbanded. He now says those militias kill more people than bombings from the Sunni Arab-led insurgency, a declaration that has infuriated the Shiites.
In any case, the mass migrations could mean that Iraq's political groups will have little incentive to compromise with one another, as they separate into their enclaves. For example, at least 761 families have settled in Baghdad after moving from Anbar Province and other Sunni-dominated areas to the west, according to Iraqi government statistics. The same is happening on the Sunni Arab end — there are reports of 50 families moving from Baghdad to the Sunni enclave of Falluja.
Aid groups have been handing out mattresses, blankets, cooking sets and other gear to families throughout central and southern Iraq.
"The situation for those displaced won't be resolved anytime soon," said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration.
The migrations are partly caused by the fear of partisan Iraqi security forces, many of them trained by the Americans. The police and commando forces are infested with militia recruits, mostly from Shiite political parties, and are accused by Sunni Arabs of carrying out sectarian executions. One Sunni-run TV network warned viewers last week not to allow Iraqi policemen or soldiers into their homes unless the forces are accompanied by American troops.
"The militias are in charge now," said Aliyah al-Bakr, 42, a Sunni Arab schoolteacher who had two male relatives abducted and executed by black-clad gunmen on a recent night in Baghdad. "I'm more afraid of Iraqi militias than of the Americans. But the American presence is still the cornerstone of all the problems. We didn't have these kinds of problems before they came here."