WASHINGTON, Feb. 24 (UPI) -- The rapidly escalating violence between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq is a development that raises the specter of possible imminent full-scale civil war.
U.S. military planners have faced that dark scenario ever since the first wave of horrific bombings of prominent Shiites in August 2003, more than two-and-a-half years ago. But the consequences of such a development are now even harder to predict or project than they were then.
The Sunni Islamist extremists in Iraq have been trying to provoke a full-scale, uncontrollable majority Shiite response since the start of their rebellion. But the bombing of the legendary Golden Mosque in Samara Wednesday appears to have been a very deliberate -- and, arguably, even desperate -- attempt to finally push the Shiites over the brink. Why then?
As leading U.S. military analysts Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and William S. Lind of the conservative Free Congress Foundation -- both Washington think tanks -- have pointed out in recent articles published by United Press International, the insurgency in Iraq has been in a somewhat stable state of equilibrium for many months now. It has not appreciably diminished or shown signs of significantly weakening or disintegrating. Nor have the insurgents been able to metastasize their operations and expand them significantly out of the two of Iraq's 18 provinces and the capital Baghdad, where they have been focused.
The Bush administration has believed that time was on its side and on the side of the new democratically elected Iraqi government because the new Iraqi security forces, numbering in all 220,000 men in both army and police units, have been steadily mobilizing, training and increasing their deployments. The guerrillas may well have come to the same conclusion.
Cordesman has pointed out that the pattern of insurgent attacks has increasingly switched over the past six months, from targeting U.S. forces to assaulting and seeking to demoralize and render ineffectual the new Iraqi ones. But the assault on the Samara mosque can only have been calculated to provoke a massive Shiite response. Beyond the motivations of sheer nihilism and love of destruction -- passions which, it must be said, often play a far larger role in guerrilla wars than is widely realized -- were there other strategic, supposedly rational factors involved in trying to provoke such an outcome?
The guerrillas certainly want to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq. President George W. Bush is also almost certainly correct in his oft-repeated assertion that they eventually want to take over oil-rich Iraq as a major base for their apocalyptic goal of creating a radicalized new Caliphate to dominate the Muslim world and humiliate the non-Muslim one. Provoking the Shiites into civil war could rapidly make Iraq ungovernable and swamp the currently limited capabilities of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq to cope with them.
The guerrillas, it is widely assumed, are motivated by a broad, unreasoning hatred of all Shiites, but this may not in fact be the case. Central to their strategy is the discrediting of the current Iraqi government, which remains closely allied to the United States. In a broader sense, they also want to discredit and render inoperable the ambitious new constitution and democratic political system that U.S. planners already have created in Iraq.
The fundamental responsibility of any government is to provide security, law and order and the basic services for sustainable civilized life. If the insurgents can provoke an uncontrollable popular Shiite reaction that destroys the legitimacy of the government among its own core support community, they will have achieved that over-riding strategic goal.
The acute sufferings of their own Sunni community at the hands of the enraged majority Shiites, who outnumber the Sunnis by 15 million to five million, is almost certainly seen by the Islamist insurgents as acceptable in order to achieve their aims. Like all fanatical political movements whether religious or secular, they are convinced you cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs or, more accurately, without wasting untold numbers of human lives.
Even if the war spills over into a wider Sunni-Shiite conflict across the wider Middle East, that could factor into the insurgents' apocalyptic strategy too. For they bitterly oppose the traditionally cautious, conservative and pro-American governments that currently control most of the region.
In particular, they have failed miserably to destabilize oil-rich Saudi Arabia -- Iraq's neighbor -- from within. To be appointed the operational leader of al-Qaida in Saudi Arabia over the past two years has been a death sentence: The Saudi security forces have killed at least five or six of them in a row. Al-Qaida operational forces in the Desert Kingdom have been reduced to a small, hunted, fearful and demoralized minority.
The entire region would have to be transformed, and Saudi Arabia destabilized from the outside, for this condition to change. However, an uncontrollable Shiite-Sunni civil war in Iraq that spilled across national borders could offer them the hope of achieving this goal when all else had failed.
There is also another possibility that so far Bush administration planners have totally overlooked or discounted: That after provoking a full-scale civil war that effectively destroys the current moderate Iraqi government and new political system, the insurgents may then make common cause with Shiite extremists backed by the new hard-line regime in Iran to establish their control of Iraq. We will explore that possibility in future analyses. Unfortunately, it cannot be discounted.