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Curfew Brings Quiet But Iraqis Say Crisis Isn't Over


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. It was relatively quiet today in Iraq, thanks in part to an unprecedented daytime curfew in Baghdad and surrounding provinces. That curfew has been extended through tomorrow. The curfew was imposed by the Iraqi government after the recent surge in sectarian violence which started with Wednesday's attack on a revered Shiite shrine.

While there were fewer attacks today, political talks to form a new government are at an impasse, and Iraqis from all groups say the crisis is far from over. NPR's Anne Garrels joins us from Baghdad, and, Anne, a decrease in violence, but tensions are still high?

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Absolutely. The sectarian split between Sunnis and Shiites has deepened. True, everyone is afraid of civil war here. Everyone talks about restraint. But at the same time, Sunni and Shiite political groups are stoking the fires. And as long as this goes on, there's absolutely no chance to form a new government.

BLOCK: Now, when you say the Sunni and the Shiite political groups are stoking the fires, what do you mean?

GARRELS: Well, this is complicated, so bear with me. It's going on at several levels. First, there's a crude blame game. The Sunnis have not yet accepted any responsibility for the attack on the Shiite shrine, instead blaming the U.S. occupation forces and the Shiite militias for the overall situation. The Shiites, in turn, are blaming the Sunnis, but they are calling for restraint and joint prayer services. Yet it is their militias that have attacked and burned Sunni mosques and killed many in retaliation for the destruction of the Shiite shrine.

And, as the U.S. presses the Shiites to open the doors to others for a government of national unity and rein in their militias, the Shiites are crying foul, and there's now a growing split between the U.S. and the Shiite-led government.

BLOCK: Well, help us understand that a little bit, Anne. Where -- the source of this split between the Shiites and the U.S.

GARRELS: Earlier this week, even before the attack on the shrine, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said there must be a government of national unity. Once the Shiite shrine was attacked, a leading Shiite politician accused the U.S. of undercutting the Shiites who won in the last elections. And he said they've given the Sunnis a green light to do this.

And today a leading Shiite cleric associated with a key Shiite political group said U.S. ambassador Khalilzad has to go, he must be fired. He said the Sunni politicians now in parliament are nothing more than terrorists. Those are the very people the U.S. is saying they must negotiate with. He sounded like his Shiite competitor, Moqtada Sadr, the radical young cleric who hates the U.S. His sermon, which many Shiites pay attention to, voided all the nice talk about joint Sunni-Shiite prayer services and Muslim unity. The Sunni-Shiite political divide is profound, and now Shiites are uniting in a much harder line against the U.S.

BLOCK: That sounds like a pretty sudden and dramatic turnaround if it's the moderate Shiites now who are taking that line.

GARRELS: This is, crudely put, politics in Iraq. The mainstream Shiite parties have been outmaneuvered politically by radical cleric Moqtada Sadr. He ran a very clever political campaign and garnered a lot of seats in the parliament, and then played back room politics brilliantly in order to get Ibrahim Jaafari reappointed as prime minister. Now, Jaafari is weak, and he is now beholden to Moqtada Sadr, who hates the U.S., and the other Shiite political groups are now scrambling.

On top of this, the Shiites, who for so long were out of power, are angry that the Americans are suddenly saying they have to make concessions to the Sunnis. And Sadr is playing a very clever game, saying, on the one hand, unity among all Muslims in Iraq, while at the same time it's his militia who is key in attacking the Sunnis.

BLOCK: Anne, do you see avenues here for any kind of (unintelligible) of bringing any of these parties or sides together in some concrete way?

GARRELS: Well, I spoke to sources in President Talabani's office. He's a Kurd. He's been holding talks between all the groups. His office, I have to tell you, is not optimistic about the immediate future. They're all trying to get Sunni and Shiite clerics to play a constructive role at this point to avert a future decline toward civil war. And until this all calms down, and all the parties sit down, there can be no negotiations on details for a future government here, and this just adds to the overall situation of instability.

BLOCK: NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad. Thanks very much.

GARRELS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anne Garrels