Saturday, August 19, 2006

When is a Civil War Not a Civil War?

As recently as August 7th, president George W. Bush made the following incisive comment on the state of affairs in Iraq: “You know, I hear people say, Well, civil war this, civil war that. The Iraqi people decided against civil war when they went to the ballot box.”

Which brings us to a story published in today's New York Times, concerning the fear Iraqis have that even prevents them from worshipping at their neighborhood mosque.

According to that story:

Across central Iraq, more and more Iraqis associate the neighborhood mosque, the cornerstone of life in the Muslim world, with the Kalashnikov rather than the Koran.

Exploding sectarian violence has undermined the mosque’s traditional role as a gathering place, further unraveling the country’s communal fabric. Mosque attendance has plummeted, according to clerics and government officials, as tens of thousands of Iraqis like Mr. Ali choose to pray at home out of safety concerns. Gatherings at Friday Prayer are sometimes one-tenth the size of what they once were, and parents no longer send their children to mosques for spiritual lessons.

The report adds:

The decline in mosque attendance is a noticeable reversal of a trend that began right after the American invasion of 2003, when religious freedom flowered and worshipers, especially long-oppressed Shiites, flocked to mosques.

Now, however, mosques have become a frequent flash point in the widening Sunni-versus-Shiite warfare.

Assaults on mosques have risen steadily since 2003, but soared after the bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra last February, which unleashed a torrent of sectarian bloodletting. There were at least 60 major attacks on Shiite mosques and scores of minor ones in the first half of this year, a figure equivalent to the total in 2005, according to statistics from the Shiite Endowment, which administers Shiite mosques for the government.

Earlier this month, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt outside the revered Shiite shrine of Ali in Najaf, killing at least 35 people and wounding more than 120, including Iranian pilgrims.

About 160 Sunni mosques were damaged by rampaging Shiites in the immediate aftermath of the Samarra bombing, a spokesman for the Sunni Endowment said. Shiite militiamen also seized and kept at least 24 Sunni mosques.

Militias regard mosques as either places of refuge or tempting targets. Entire congregations have been wiped out by car bombs. Gunmen abduct imams, and sometimes shoot them outright. American and Iraqi forces often storm the buildings hunting for guerrillas. Airstrikes obliterate minarets.

Sunni mosques have become rallying points for neighborhood militias, blaring “God is great” from their loudspeakers to warn of the approach of Shiite gunmen. Violence around mosques is so rampant that in June the government imposed a curfew on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., the peak prayer time.

Imams walk around with handguns stuffed into their robes, and many mosques look more like prisons than prayer halls, fortified with concertina wire, metal detectors and guards behind mounted machine guns.

So, what are we to make of this, President Bush?

If it is not civil war, exactly what the hell is it?

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