Civil wars, as a general rule, don't announce themselves when they arrive. But how else to label what Iraqis witnessed in their streets last week? What other term could describe the sight of armed and angry Shi'ite mobs rampaging through Baghdad and other cities, dragging Sunnis into the streets and executing them, looting their homes and burning down their mosques? The proximate cause of the violence was the bombing of al-Askari, the sacred Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, but that attack could only partially account for the hatreds unleashed. A government-imposed curfew briefly interrupted the slaughter; after dark the fighting resumed. Ordinary citizens guided assassins to the homes of their neighbors. Iraqis like Isam al-Rawi, a Baghdad University geology professor and Sunni politician, kept their guns close and loaded. "I have to be ready for anything," he says. For him, the decapitation of the mosque in Samarra was an omen of doom. "I said to myself, 'This is it. The Shi'ites are going to go mad. This is the start of the civil war.'"
Such dire predictions have been made before and proved wrong. But this time Iraq got a very real, very frightening glimpse of what war with itself might look like. After three days of violence, more than 200 people were killed, and Sunni groups claimed at least 100 mosques were damaged. The extent of the carnage left many with the uneasy sense that the long-simmering hostility between the country's two main sects has at last boiled over--and that the fragile, feckless institutions of authority in Iraq have no means of holding the anger back. "This was the worst-case scenario we all hoped would never happen," said a Western adviser to the Iraqi government. "We've always known that when the Shi'ites ran out of patience, Iraq would run out of political options."
The outbreak of communal conflict has raised the nightmarish prospect of an even wider and more destabilizing war that would tempt the country's neighbors to intervene on behalf of the partisans. And the violence threatens to spoil the overriding U.S. objective in Iraq: brokering the formation of a broadly representative government, which the Bush Administration has hoped would defuse the Sunni-led insurgency and facilitate a substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops. To protest the other side's excesses, Sunni and Shi'ite leaders have both walked away from U.S.-led negotiations on the new government.
Caught off guard by the mayhem and powerless to stop it, U.S. officials could only offer general expressions of optimism. "Obviously it's a blow," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told journalists as her plane crossed Iraqi airspace after a five-day swing through the Middle East, "but whenever someone tries to tear them apart, [Iraqis] find a way to get back together." Over the weekend, President George W. Bush spent an hour on seven phone calls to Iraqi leaders, expressing condolences, thanking them for their appeals for calm and urging them to continue working to form a new government. In private, U.S. officials sounded guarded. "This is plainly a test for the Iraqi government," says a well-placed national-security official. "What the outcome will be is not entirely clear." A U.S. anti-insurgency official in Baghdad was even more blunt: "It looks like all hell is about to break loose here."