A Nation Adrift

The ultimate consequences of the bombing of the Shia Muslim shrine in Samarra, and the subsequent retaliatory killings that took more than a thousand lives of mostly Sunni Arabs, are unclear. Presumably, the bombers hoped to precipitate an outright civil war. So far, Iraqis have backed away from that abyss.

There are good reasons why. A civil war between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite populations would draw Iran into the conflict on the Shiite side, plunging the wider region into chaos. In this worst-case scenario, Iran’s nuclear ambitions would compel the Sunni-dominated states, especially Saudi Arabia, to acquire nuclear weapons as well. With nuclear-armed Pakistan and Israel already positioned at the region’s edges, the consequences of an Arab nuclear-arms race are almost too terrible to think about.

Certain observers have noted that civil war is not in the interest of either the Sunnis or the Shiites. Despite being the overwhelming majority, the Shiites are deeply divided. A quick or clear-cut victory over the more cohesive, and technologically and militarily more sophisticated Sunni community is not a given. At the same time, the Sunnis know the cost of civil war would be high and the likely outcome inconclusive. As Lawrence Kaplan reports in the New Republic (March 6), the Sunnis, once bitterly opposed to the U.S. presence, now look to the U.S. military to protect them from the death squads of renegade...

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