The destruction of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra has brought Iraq to the brink of civil war. Hundreds of lives have been lost in sectarian violence following the bombing of the Shiite house of worship. The divisions in the country have never been clearer. There is hope, however, that the sheer revulsion that followed this attack may wake Iraqis to the stakes involved. Paradoxically, the very reality of civil war may help prevent one.

Two of the most revered imams (or leaders) in the Shiite branch of the Islamic faith are entombed in the al-Hadhrah al-Askariya mosque, sometimes called the Golden Mosque in reference to the distinctive golden dome atop the building. In the week before last, still unidentified terrorists reduced it to rubble in a move that was designed to infuriate and humiliate the Shiite majority in Iraq and upset others around the world.

It worked. Hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in a bloody downward spiral of action and reaction that has occurred around the country. There have been car bombs, shootings and arson attacks. In one especially gruesome instance, 47 people were pulled off buses as they returned from a protest and were shot in the head. Funerals for victims have been popular targets for retribution and revenge.

The attack was designed to pit Sunni against Shiite in Iraq. It worked. As an additional benefit (as far as the terrorists are concerned), it derailed talks to bring Sunnis into the Iraqi government that is dominated by the Shiite majority. The Sunnis are not used to not being in control of Iraq; during Saddam Hussein’s rule, Sunnis dominated the country. They have been grappling with a strategy for political engagement ever since the dictator was deposed.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has been encouraging the development of an inclusive government, but negotiations have been frustratingly slow, and complicated by charges that Shiites are using the security forces to exact revenge against Sunnis for abuses during the Hussein years.

Sunnis pulled out of talks following reprisals against them after the Askariya attack. The personal intervention of Mr. Bush helped convince some of them to rejoin the negotiations on the condition that the Baghdad government followed through with plans to investigate the attacks and rebuild destroyed religious sites. The U.S. wants a broad-based Iraqi government so that it can proceed with its own plans to draw down U.S. forces in the country.

If the attack was designed to accentuate the divisions among the faithful, it also exposed the divisions within each branch of the faith. They are not monolithic. Both Shiites and Sunnis are divided between moderate, typically older leaders, and a much more aggressive generation of young clerics. These younger leaders are not as established as their elders, and are therefore more likely to denounce compromise and call for more extreme action to protect the faithful — and put themselves at the vanguard of their movements.

But the wave of violence has woken up many of these leaders, and they have joined together to denounce the violence and call on all Iraqis to disavow the terrorist agenda. Significantly, among them are leaders of the more extreme movements that have been quick to take up violence. Their commitment to the accord is critical to its eventual success. Their fellow believers must ensure that those leaders do not merely mouth platitudes. They must follow those words of peace with real deeds, discouraging the more aggressive of their followers and turning them in if they commit acts of violence.

The speed with which the violence spread around Iraq — in spite of a curfew — has exposed the limits of the country’s security forces. It is evident that Iraq does not have a military or police that is capable of responding to the insurgency that plagues the country. That creates a dilemma: It means that foreign forces, in particular, the United States, are still needed to maintain order.

At the same time, however, the very presence of those forces attracts insurgents and serves as a symbol of the Baghdad government’s weakness and seeming artificiality. No wonder then that the clerics who denounced the violence also called on the occupying forces to set a timetable for their withdrawal.

The only hope for Iraq is for the overwhelming majority of its people to recognize that continuing violence will engulf the country and destroy them. They must not think that they are somehow served by the insurgency. If they are not committed to peace and to the rebuilding of a nation free from hatred, then their country has no future. The alternative is endless violence and civil war. Other nations, friends of Iraq, must step up help, but the primary burden rests upon Iraqi shoulders.

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