Who'll Stop an Iraq Civil War?

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Man of the Moment: Iraqis display a poster of Moqtada al-Sadr after Friday prayers in Najaf

The slide towards civil war in Iraq is palpable, as Shiites and Sunnis clash across the country in the wake of the Golden Mosque bombing in Samarra. Still, it is not not yet irreversible — because it has never been the preferred outcome of either the dominant Shiite religious parties or the more nationalist leadership of the Sunni insurgency.

But if the morbid trend on display in the past two days of sectarian bloodletting is to be reversed, a new political consensus will have to be achieved as a matter of urgency among Iraq's fractious leaders. And the the key figure in bringing that about is less likely to be U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad than it is to be Moqtada Sadr, the radical firebrand Shiite cleric whose Mehdi Army militia has confronted the U.S. military in two insurrections since 2004.

Sadr's centrality in averting a civil war is based on three factors: He has emerged as the key power broker in the Shiite alliance that dominated January's election; his primary support base is among the 3 million Shiites of East Baghdad, which would put his militias on the main frontline of any sectarian civil war; and his uncompromising stand against the U.S. presence — as well as his opposition to the idea of a Shiite autonomous region in the south favored by the largest party in his coalition — has given him unparalleled credibility (for a Shiite leader) among Iraq's Sunnis. While Khalilzad has drawn the ire of the Shiite leadership for his efforts to pressure it into doing more to accomodate the Sunnis, Sadr represents a Shiite kingmaker with a history of reaching out to Sunnis on the basis of a common (if anti-American) Iraqi nationalism.

Sadr responded to the Samarra bombing by urging his fighters to guard Shiite holy places, but he has also appealed for restraint and warned against allowing outside elements to provoke an Iraqi civil war. He has also denounced the U.S. for failing to protect Shiites and has reiterated his demand for an American withdrawal from Iraq.

That position may yet resonate with the Sunnis, whose main political parties have long demanded a timetable for U.S. withdrawal — after all, neither side expects the Americans to protect them in the event of a full-blown civil war. In one of those paradoxes for which the Middle East is notorious, conventional wisdom throughout the region holds that a U.S. withdrawal would precipitate a civil war, but at the same time the call for such a withdrawal may be an integral part of any new national accord forged among Iraqis to avoid a civil war.