The identities of those who organized the bombings that killed more than 200 people in Karbala and Baghdad on Mar. 2 may be obscure, but their motives are clear. Iraq's Shiites, downtrodden for decades despite forming two-thirds of the population, are on the verge of gaining power thanks to the overthrow of Saddam
Hussein. The bombers want to frighten the Shiites into dialing back their political aspirations, and they want to plunge Iraq into the chaos of a sectarian civil war.
Although their capacity to wreak havoc is great, the shadowy insurgents are likely to fall short of their aims. True, they chose an occasion rich in symbolism for the attack, but that's likely to backfire. For the first time since Saddam's defeat, Shiites from all over the region had gathered to celebrate the Ashura -- the commemoration of the death of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, in Karbala in 680. To Shiites the message was clear. The Sunni Muslims who held sway in Iraq and continue to do so in neighbors such as Saudi Arabia don't want Shiites to lead. Yet that message -- and the fact that they were attacked during their most emotional ritual -- will only strengthen the Shiites' determination to gain political clout commensurate with their population size. Many Iraqis also see that the insurgency's message of revenge, sabotage, and death is not the way to a brighter future.
While a few people in Karbala took violent revenge on suspected Sunnis or foreigners, both Shiite and Sunni religious leaders have called for restraint. The Sunni mosque in Baghdad's Adhimiya district, where Saddam Hussein was admired, even appealed for blood donations for those injured in an attack on a Shiite mosque across the Tigris river. Top Shiites are not urging any violent breakup of Iraq. "It is a dangerous situation, but it's a good sign that all the Shiite leaders are asking their followers to stick to national unity," says Ghanim Jawad, an official of the Al-Khoei Foundation, a Shiite institution in London.
Paving the Way
The insurgents don't have a compelling alternative vision of Iraq to match that of the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, which agreed on an interim constitution on Feb. 29. That document is notable for its provisions respecting the rights of individuals and empowering women, although these qualities don't yet mean much in today's violence-torn Iraq. Still, the constitution is a product of compromise between groups and paves the way for the transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30.
The fact that the insurgents lack a vision won't stop them from trying to cause further turmoil. The resistance is "organized and coherent enough that it could be self-sustaining," warns Toby Dodge, an Iraq specialist at Britain's Warwick University. The U.S. blames much of the violence on Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born, al Qaeda-linked figure, and has put a $10 million bounty on his head. But analysts say that Iraqis -- regime diehards, Islamic militants, and nationalists -- are also involved. They'll do their utmost to stir divisions among Iraq's ethnic and religious communities. That's why Britain's top official in Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, predicts that U.S. and British forces will have to stay in Iraq for at least two more years -- two make-or-break years.
By Stanley Reed in London
Edited by Rose Brady