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ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL REPORT

Iraq Journals

Glimpses of life in a war-torn country by GNS national security correspondent John Yaukey and photo director Jeff Franko.

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Tuesday, March 16

Iraq caught between pull of violence, push for peace

By John Yaukey | GNS

BAGHDAD, Iraq - An old Arab proverb says tyranny is better than anarchy.

A year after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, Iraqis have scarcely had a day free of bedlam. That point was driven home Wednesday with the devastating bombing of a hotel in central Baghdad that killed dozens of people just two days before the war's one-year anniversary.

Perhaps the worst day of violence was March 2, when suicide bombers attacked Shiite shrines in the holy city of Karbala and in Baghdad, killing more than 180 people.

That attack, more than any other, has raised an important question on the ground in Iraq now: Can the center hold against the rampant violence intended to plunge Iraq into civil war by fomenting sectarian violence?

The view from Iraqis here is that violence can't get in the way.

``We must not bend to the temptation to fight among ourselves,'' said Fadhil Abas Muslim, who lives in Karbala and witnessed the bloody aftermath of the March 2 bombing there. ``All Muslims are brothers - we cannot fail each other at this critical time.''

While civil war remains unlikely, another major spike in violence could exacerbate the raging ill will toward U.S. troops here struggling to restore security. Within minutes of the Karbala bombing, U.S. soldiers were forced to retreat from stone-throwing mobs.

``What do the Americans do? They don't help us; they sit behind their walls,'' Mahatr al-Salem said as he poked around a Baghdad store. ``We protect ourselves.''

Bahrel Khartul blames the March 2 bombing, in part, on U.S. troops and their inability to keep the nation secure. ``They can't secure our cities, but we must do what they say.''

More violence?

The March 2 bombing also prompted many of Iraq's Shiite militias to take up arms openly again, raising concerns that U.S. forces eventually could find themselves barrel-to-barrel with vigilantes fed up with the volatility.

Looking forward, the calendar is hardly a source of consolation for either the Iraqis or U.S. troops.

In mid-April, a million or more Shiites are expected to march for several days from points across Iraq to Karbala, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, in a pilgrimage that marks the end of an annual mourning period for Shiite patriarch Imam Hussein. A grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Hussein is a 7th century martyr who Shiites say saved Iraq from a tyrannical ruler.

There is almost palpable fear here that the same terrorists who recently bombed Karbala will again strike at the vulnerable Shiites as they are scattered across the Iraqi countryside.

``They may try and strike us, but they will not keep us from our shrines,'' said Hussein Joward Kardum, who lives in Hillah, one of Iraq's most volatile towns. American civilian Fern Holland, who was working with the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, was killed last week in the Hillah region.

There is also near unanimity among U.S. commanders on the ground and fearful Iraqis that the violence will spike dramatically near June 30, the day Iraqis take control of their government from the U.S.-led civil authorities. But U.S. officials say the violence will not deter American troops. ``We're not walking out on Iraq on the first of July,'' said Secretary of State Colin Powell on ABC's ``This Week'' Sunday talk show. ``We will be with them.''

Road to stability

If U.S. and Iraqi forces can make consistent progress improving security, there is plenty to suggest this country can stabilize.

Baghdad's sidewalks are brimming with merchandise - plums, peaches, pomegranates and TVs, flowing in since U.S. authorities suspended big-product import duties.

Diesel generators rumble night and day. Cheap cars from Jordan have helped stem the carjacking epidemic.

Much of the credit for containing violence goes to Iraq's Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population.

They have been the targets of some of the violence since President Bush declared the end of major combat operations on May 1, and yet they have refrained from striking back.

``The Karbala bombing in March will go down as a significant event in Shiite history,'' said Juan Cole, an expert on Shiites at the University of Michigan. ``It was the equivalent for Catholics of bombing the Vatican on Good Friday.''

In August, a car bomb killed more than 80 people, including Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, outside a shrine in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

While no group has claimed responsibility for these attacks against the Shiites, it is believed they are being carried out by Sunni Arabs, who want to spark a Shiite-Sunni civil war.

The Sunnis staffed the ranks of Saddam Hussein's regime in large numbers and have lost much of their clout with his fall.

So far, the Shiites have restrained themselves from any sort of major retaliation largely because they think their majority status will secure them much of the power as Iraq assumes self-rule.

Even some of the most radical Shiites have been urging their followers to refrain from striking back and let the democratic process work.

``There is only so much violence we will stand,'' said Bahnhir San, a Shiite in Baghdad.

 

(Contributing: GNS reporter Jon Frandsen in Washington, D.C.)