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A typical encounter was my interview with Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the seniormost Sunni in the Iraqi government. We met in his chintz-laden Green Zone office on the day of the al-Jihad murders. Many of the victims had been dragged out of their homes and shot dead in the street. As usual, the finger of blame pointed to the Mahdi Army. After al-Hashimi had fulminated about the slaughter of his fellow Sunnis, I asked whether the murdering militiamen might have been seeking revenge for the previous week's bombing of the market in Sadr City. Al-Hashimi's response was to claim that militiamen had planted the bomb, deliberately killing their fellow Shi'ites in order to justify revenge killings of Sunnis. "They were able to attack Sunni mosques within an hour of the market bomb," he said. "This has to have been premeditated."
Such bizarre logic quickly becomes received wisdom in a society in which even the highest officials in the land propagate outlandish conspiracy theories. The speaker of Iraq's parliament, Mahmud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, announced at a press conference in Bahrain that "an entire Israeli brigade has entered Iraq ... trying to infiltrate various parties." That phantom force, he continued, is "camped at Babylon, whose destruction signifies the survival of the state of Israel in their holy books."
The few secular politicians with any name recognition, like Allawi, have become marginalized, their voices drowned by the sectarian din. In two general elections, Allawi has failed to get more than 14% of the vote, and the flight of middle-class Iraqis is eroding his natural constituency. He bemoans the growing power of sectarian forces but can only watch in despair. In private conversations even politicians with no pretensions of secularism occasionally wish for a unifying leader. Some months ago, Sunni leader Saleh al-Mutlak and I chatted about the kind of leadership it would take to pull Iraq back from the brink. We agreed that there were no giants on the political landscape, and he shook his head dolefully. "Not only that," he said, sighing, "but the political system we have created makes it impossible for such a figure to emerge." Politicians, he said, have discovered that the easiest way to win votes is to appeal to sectarian chauvinism; they have little incentive to take the higher, more difficult road. Al-Mutlak returned to that theme in a recent interview with a local paper, saying the country needed "an Iraqi Mandela."
Alas, statesmen can't be wished into existence. In 31/2 years of covering Iraq, I have not come across a single leader who has seemed able to rise above petty political or sectarian interests. Never mind a Mandela; there's not even an Iraqi Hamid Karzai. The beleaguered Afghan President has more credibility with his people than any Iraqi politician can honestly claim. In the absence of statesmen, I fear the sectarian furies that have been unleashed in Iraq will hack away at the last vestiges of sense and decency and drag the country into a final fight to the death.