A year after the invasion the spectre of murderous civil war still hangs over Iraq

By James Drummond

Published: March 20 2004 4:00 | Last Updated: March 20 2004 4:00

A cold desert wind drives grit and rubbish across the shrine city of Karbala.

Wild-looking men, some with black scarfs of Shia mourning knotted round their heads and all carrying Kalashnikovs, are searching every vehicle entering the city.

It is difficult to tell what they want. But the men are particularly interested in foreigners. Only the ragged blue shirts, difficult to discern from a distance, identify them as members of the Iraqi police.

Not far away, on March 2, more than 100 people were killed in a bomb attack on Shia pilgrims celebrating the festival of Ashura. A simultaneous attack in another Shia shrine in Baghdad brought the day's death toll to more than 180. It was the bloodiest 24 hours since the end of the US-led invasion of Iraq, launched a year ago today.

A year on, the chaotic aftermath of war has seen Iraqis take refuge in the old loyalties of kinship and religion.

Amid deep lack of understanding between a Shia majority, based mainly in the south, and a northern Kurdish minority, and with less than four months to go before the US surrenders sovereignty, many openly fear an explosion of internecine strife. The Shia festival of Arbain next month, which may attract as many worshippers as Ashura, provides another opportunity for bloodshed.

The most influential domestic political force in post-war Iraq is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a senior Shia cleric based in Najaf.

Mr Sistani has proved his authority with a series of rulings since July last year that have forced the US to revise its plans for Iraq's return to self-rule and undermined the legitimacy of a temporary constitution designed to take the country through to elections.

But if his power is evident, Mr Sistani's modus operandi is opaque. Many Shia politicians claim that they have his blessing when they do not. The 75-year-old ayatollah, born in the Mashad in Iran, has maintained an aloofness that so far has served him well.

"He clearly has a political head but I don't think he has a very high regard for politicians," says a senior official with the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

He has nevertheless shown some willingness to compromise, falling in behind UN recommendations that elections cannot be held until the end of this year at the earliest. Nor does he favour an Iranian-style theocracy, under which a supreme religious leader is the final source of reference even in day-to-day politics.

"The coalition government are fortunate to have a man like him. Really if he had been half-crazy he could have turned Iraq upside down by now," says Gailan Ramiz, an academic and former director of research at the Iraqi foreign ministry.

But the majority Shia are also by no means homogeneous. Other influential groups include the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq - based in Iran during the years of Ba'athist rule and a powerful force in southern Iraq - and Da'awa party - now led by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, another member of the Governing Council.

Mr Jaafari, although respectful of Mr Sistani, is clear that he views the ayatollah as only one source of reference and that as a politician he has to listen to public opinion.

"Sistani doesn't like to get into the details of the political process," Mr Jaafari says in his villa in the Mansour district of Baghdad. "He always listens and respects the views of the other political parties. When I visit him I listen to him and he listens to me."

"As a politician I consider the response of the Iraqi people. The democratic process to us is very important. In my life I haven't taken part in a democratic process - until now," Mr Jaafari says.

In the Yarmouk area of west Baghdad Sadoun Dulaimi, the head of the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies, frets about the structure of the US-appointed interim Governing Council - the nearest thing Iraq currently has to a legislature - which he says entrenches Iraq's sectarian divisions.

Mr Dulaimi, a member of a powerful Sunni Arab tribe from the Western Anbar province, spent the year before the war in Washington training with other exiles to take up the reins of power in Iraq once the fighting was over. He has been disappointed.

"Iraq has fragmented already," he says, pointing to the ministries which are filling with political appointees of the various parties represented on the Governing Council.

"When I go to the ministry of telecoms it is like a shrine," says Ahmed al-Mukhtar an Iraqi journalist. The ministry of telecommunications is controlled by Mr Jaafari's Da'awa party, a religious Shia group.

"When I go to the foreign ministry all the guards are Kurds," he says. Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister, is a senior member of the Kurdistan Democratic party.

It is the aspirations of the Kurds which many other Iraqis view as the obstacle to the unity of Iraq and which form the largest potential source of contention - particularly for the Shia majority.

For 12 years the Kurdish minority has enjoyed autonomy in northern Iraq. Aside from a pair of horrific suicide bombings in Arbil in February, the atmosphere in the three northern governorates is calmer than in the rest of the country and the Kurdish public is loath to surrender its de facto independence.

Elsewhere, the violence continues. According to the website Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, 671 allied servicemen and women have died since the launch of the war. November last year was a particularly bloody month. Another website, Iraq Body Count, based on media reports, estimates that between 8,500 and 10,500 Iraqi civilians have died since the invasion.

Iraqis and the US-led coalition tend to blame foreigners and in particular Wahabis, adherents of a militant Islamic movement with roots in Saudi Arabia. The use of suicide bombers and the co-ordination of the Karbala and Baghdad bombings point to a foreign link.

But the US military admits that of the 10,000 security prisoners held in its jails, fewer than 150 are non-Iraqi Arabs.

What is clear is that the nature of the attacks has evolved. From the earliest days of the occupation, tribesmen in the so-called Sunni triangle, north and west of Baghdad, started to attack US troops.

More recently, the violence has extended to include Iraqis working with the coalition - particularly recruits to the new police force and army. And, through the attacks in Karbala and Baghdad and earlier in Arbil, someone seems intent on triggering civil war.

So it is scarcely surprising that the continuing security situation dominates conversation. While the nightly gun battles that illuminated Baghdad in the weeks after the war have largely stopped, the talk in Baghdad is now of kidnapping and gang leaders who control entire neighbourhoods.

These concerns, even if they are sometimes exaggerated, tend to shorten people's memories, overshadowing the stuttering political process and successes like the capture in December of the still-hated leader Saddam Hussein.

The US is now committed to handing over sovereignty to an Iraqi body on June 30. It will leave behind the largest US embassy in the world and more than 100,000 troops.

But the Iraqi structure which will take over is not at this stage clear. The temporary administrative law says that elections must be held by January 31 next year, to elect an assembly which will both write a permanent constitution and govern Iraq.

"I really feel that this is the reason why civil war starts - when there is no law and your rights are lost," says the academic Mr Ramiz.

Citing Lakhdar Ibrahimi, the leader of the UN mission that visited Iraq last month, he says: "Civil wars are not started by a decision, but people just find themselves being pushed into it, being pushed by bad men . . The spectre is always there."