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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sectarian Violence Deals Blow to Iraqi Sovereignty

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Gunmen hold sway over streets lined with concrete bomb-blast barriers and razor wire. Entire neighborhoods are too dangerous for police to enter.

And this may be the best that Iraqis and Americans can hope for.

The surge of sectarian fighting after a Shiite Muslim shrine was bombed last week has dealt a hard blow to hopes for creating a functioning Iraqi state.

Instead of laboring to create a well-run economy or a democracy, Iraqi and U.S. resources are being diverted to stave off a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. "We are dedicating all our time to ward off what might be dire consequences," said Hussein Ali Kamal, the Iraqi Interior Ministry's intelligence chief. "If the crimes and attacks increase, I do not think anyone in this country will survive."

The bleak prospects have serious implications for the United States. Washington wants to tone down its overt political influence in Baghdad and decrease the number of U.S. troops precisely at a time when the fledgling Iraqi government has shown itself incapable of maintaining political or military control.

"This is something that's been leaning in this direction for some time, and the mosque incident has accelerated the process," said Edward Walker, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs. "What we're talking about is people looking out for their own. I don't think it can be turned around."

Plans to crush militias long have been shelved in an effort to co-opt them. In Baghdad's Sadr City district, the large slum where one-tenth of Iraq's population lives, black-clad Al Mahdi militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr rule the streets while police officers cower.

Even the U.S. military, which once clashed with Al Mahdi in gun battles in the capital and in the country's Shiite south, has grudgingly come to accept that the militia is here to stay.

"Now is not the time for the Iraqi government to take specific action against the militias," Army Major General Rick Lynch told reporters at a news conference Saturday. "It's going to be worked over time."

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been trying to persuade Iraqis to appoint apolitical technocrats to head ministries, but the best U.S. and Iraqi officials may be able to hope for is dividing security forces along sectarian lines.

Parts of west Baghdad are being patrolled by Sunni-dominated army units, and parts of eastern Baghdad by Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry units.

With a weak central government and a lack of national identity, countries in the region support their sectarian or ethnic kin: Iran backs the Shiites, Turkey backs the Turkmen minority, Jordan and Saudi Arabia back Sunnis.

"It's clear that various states in the region are hedging their bets about what's happening," said Mark Sedra, an expert on post-conflict countries at the Bonn International Center for Conversion. "The Iraqi government is trying to assert its own sovereignty, but it has failed."