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Is Iraq On the Brink of Civil War?

The purging of Sunni candidates from Iraq's upcoming parliamentary elections has raised the specter of civil conflict.

Seven years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein's government and pulverized the Iraqi state, voters will go to the polls on March 7 in an election that most Iraqis hope will continue their country's uneven progress toward political stability. But a new crisis, provoked by an anti-Baathist purge in mid-January by Tehran's allies in Iraq, has threatened to unravel Iraq's fledgling democracy. At best, a backroom deal at the last minute could restore some semblance of normalcy to the election, but the purge has poisoned the atmosphere, perhaps fatally. At worst, the crisis could reignite the sectarian conflict that brought Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war in 2006.

"Do I think there could be a return to civil war?" asks Feisal al-Istrabadi, Iraq's former UN ambassador. "I do."

The possibility of new violence in Iraq, coming on the eve of the withdrawal of tens of thousands of U.S. troops by August, has alarmed the Obama administration. At the White House, at the U.S. military's Central Command and at the American Embassy in Baghdad, officials are worried. "Tony Blinken was off the charts," says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and Iraq specialist at the Center for American Progress (CAP), referring to the top aide to Vice President Joseph Biden, who has taken charge of American policy in Iraq since last summer. Another insider, who recently visited Baghdad for talks with U.S. military and diplomatic officials and who requested anonymity, says Gen. Ray Odierno and the military command think President Obama may have to reconsider the U.S. withdrawal timetable. "People in the administration that I talk to say Iraq is way too important for the United States to allow it to implode," he says.

Just a year ago, it seemed as if Iraq was muddling through. The January 2009 provincial elections, widely seen as a dry run for this year's more important vote to choose a new national government, boosted the fortunes of secular and nationalist parties and delivered what many analysts saw as a near knockout blow to the turbaned religious parties, especially the Iranian-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which lost big. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, disguising his origins as a leader of the secretive Shiite Dawa Party, won strong support last year while campaigning as a born-again nationalist atop a new coalition that he called State of Law. After the provincial elections, Maliki even began to explore the possibility of an alliance with representatives of the mostly Sunni secular opposition, including Saleh al-Mutlaq, who leads the National Dialogue Front, and with nonsectarian politicians such as former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

That was then. Starting last spring, at the urging of top officials in Iran -- including Ali Larijani, the conservative, Iraqi-born speaker of the Iranian Parliament, and Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps -- a group of sectarian Shiite religious leaders patched over their differences to establish the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), linking ISCI with the forces of rogue cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari of a renegade Dawa faction; and Ahmad Chalabi, the former darling of U.S. neoconservatives, who has long maintained close ties to Iran's hardliners.

The creation of the INA was widely seen, inside and outside Iraq, as an Iranian project. Reidar Visser, a close observer of Iraqi affairs at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, says efforts to rebuild the Shiite sectarian alliance began last spring, after a visit to Baghdad by Larijani. Soon afterward, a stream of Iraqi officials made pilgrimages to Tehran, where a deal between the Hakim family (the founders of ISCI) and Sadr was brokered by Iran. "Part of the Iranian strategy has been to put politics in Iraq back on the sectarian track," says Visser. Both Iran and the new Shiite alliance pressured Maliki to join, but at that time the prime minister felt strong enough to run independently.