The latest carnage comes as the focus on Iraq's immediate future shifts outside its borders to U.S. discussions over redefining its strategy, moves by Iran and Syria to stake their own claim to a role in stabilizing Iraq, and perhaps, to competition between the two camps.
President Bush is due to meet Prime Minister Maliki against a backdrop in which U.S. officials are increasingly frustrated over the failure of the Iraqi government to act against the Shi'ite militias, which are answerable to parties in the ruling coalition. Washington views the dismantling of those militias as the key to achieving national reconciliation with the Sunnis and isolating the insurgency.
But following the latest attacks, the pressure on Maliki from his own base to resist U.S. demands will likely be greater than whatever leverage President Bush can bring to bear: The Iraqi leader has long made clear that he can only move against the Shi'ite militias after the Sunni insurgent threat has been removed, and the bloodshed in Sadr City Thursday will only reinforce that point. Indeed, Sadr's party threatened to quit the government if Maliki's meeting with Bush goes ahead next week and Sadr's support has been critical to keeping him in power.
The latest escalation in bloodshed began with a two-hour siege Thursday by Sunni gunmen on the Ministry of Health; then suspected Sunni insurgents detonated a series of bombs in crowded places in Sadr City and other Shi'ite neighborhoods that killed more than 160 people. Shi'ite militiamen retaliated by firing mortars at mosques and other targets in neighboring Sunni suburbs. And tensions were further inflamed by an incident in which U.S. troops, searching in Sadr City for a kidnapped American soldier, fired on a van that refused to slow down in response to a signal, killing four civilians. The incident, which highlighted the ongoing U.S. campaign against elements of Sadr's army who they see as responsible for much of the sectarian violence, makes life even more difficult for Maliki.
It's a safe bet that those responsible for Thursday's bombings calculated their political effect the most extreme wing of the Sunni insurgency, which routinely engages in the mass killing of Shi'ite civilians, has no interest in the success of a national reconciliation project in which they would be the big losers. And while Iraqi leaders issued by-now routine calls for reconciliation and calm, many observers feared that Thursday's bombings could have a similar effect to the bombing of the Shi'ite shrine at Samarra in the spring, which dramatically escalated the sectarian confrontation. It will certainly take more than a curfew to stop the cycle of retribution.
Iranian leaders, meanwhile, will host Iraq's President Jalal Talabani with Syrian leaders possibly in attendance on Saturday, in an initiative designed to showcase Iran's intention of playing a positive role in Iraq; the meeting will also not so subtly make the point that Tehran doesn't need Washington's permission to get involved. But even though Iran traditionally wields greater influence over the Shi'ite parties that dominate Iraq's government, it may have little to offer in the immediate crisis of sectarian escalation. Likewise Syria, whose contribution would be largely to tighten border security to prevent the trickle of foreign jihadists into the territory of its neighbor, may not be able to effect events on the ground as much it might like to think.
Iraq, after all, is already awash with weapons and fighters. And even the extent to which the Shi'ite political leadership is able to restrain the militias on the streets is an open question. Despite the best efforts of various, contending regional powers to shape events in Iraq, the escalating violence puts the momentum in the hands of Iraq's own contending factions. And their prospects for agreeing to a formula that can reverse the slide into full-scale civil war are not bright.