Iraq Bomb Attack: Why Is Civil War Possible?

A bomb attack destroying the golden-domed mosque al-Askari in Samarra, one of the holiest Shiite shrines in Iraq, has highlighted the sectarian strife between different communities within Iraq.

Religions and Factions

Sunni: Minority in Iraq. Under Saddam Hussein, Sunnis were top dogs. Since his overthrow, they've feared retaliation from Shiites. Sunnis are often accused of participating in the insurgency.

Shia or Shiite: Used interchangeably. Shiites make up the majority of Iraqis, about 60 percent of the population. The main Shiite coalition is called the United Iraqi Alliance. It has long been feared that attacks on Shiite religious sites would incite reprisals. The alliance is made up of mainstream Shiite Islamic religious parties that make up the Iraqi interim government, liberal secularists, some independent Sunni representatives and representatives of the radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

Kurds: Originally from Iran, the 40 million Kurds live in the mountainous area of southwest Asia that includes parts of Iraq, Turkey and Iran as well as smaller sections of Syria and Armenia. They make up the world's largest stateless ethnic group.

Kurds would like an autonomous Kurdish region within an Iraqi federal republic. One popular constitutional arrangement advanced by some Kurds calls for eight years within a federal Iraq, followed by an option of independence. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, along with smaller parties formed the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan as an umbrella group during the 2005 National Assembly election.

Baath: The Ba'athists ruled Iraq from February 1963 until 2003. The original Ba'ath party functioned as a pan-Arab party with branches in different Arab countries. In 1966 the party split in two, one branch based in Syria and the other in Iraq. After the de facto deposition of Saddam's Ba'athist regime during the Iraq War, the Iraqi Ba'ath Party was banned in June 2003.

Who's Who? and What's What?

Imam: In Arabic, imam means "leader."

The ruler of a country might be called the imam but the term generally refers to a person leading Muslim congregational prayers (not necessarily a cleric).

Shiites believe that the imam is a leader who must be followed, since Allah, or God, appoints the imam. Shiites may also choose an imam whose interpretation of the Koran they wish to follow.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani: Born in Iran and considered the Shiite's supreme leader. After the bomb attack, al-Sistani appeared on television and underlined how serious this attack was, but he reiterated that Shiites restrain themselves from taking revenge. He has consistently urged Iraqi Shiites not to respond in kind to attacks from Sunnis and to vote in the various elections. This insistence on nonviolence earned him a nomination for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize. Sistani dispenses millions of dollars to pay for religious education of would-be scholars across the Muslim world. Since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sistani has played an increasingly political role there. On the eve of the 2003 invasion, he told Iraqis not to resist the occupation forces.

Moktada al-Sadr: As head of the Imam Mehdi army, an armed militia that has waged an intermittent insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq, he has given the United States trouble ever since American forces arrived. Experts say Sadr has claimed the title "hojatolislam," the first major rank for a cleric on the path to becoming an ayatollah.

Ayatollah: The word means "sign of God," and those who carry the title are experts in Islam in such areas as jurisprudence, ethics, philosophy and mysticism, and usually teach in schools. One is granted this title by one's peers for exemplary behavior and knowledge.

Ibrahim al-Jaafari: Prime Minister of Iraq following the January 2005 elections. He is a Shiite and was previously one of the two vice presidents of Iraq under the Iraqi interim government in 2004.

Ayad Allawi: Former prime minister of Iraq. Head of secular Iraqi faction. Allawi's group is concerned about an Islamist-minded coalition.

Jalal Talabani: President of Iraq. He is Kurdish and was named president on April 6, 2005, by the Iraqi National Assembly. Talabani is founder and secretary general of one of the main Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. He was a prominent member of the interim Iraqi governing council, which was established following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Zalmay Khalizad: American ambassador in Iraq. Khalilzad called on Iraqis to "unite against terror" and promised that the U.S. government would help repair the shrine. He accused al Qaeda of a "deliberate attempt to foment sectarian strife in Iraq and the region."

The United States has been pressuring Shiite leaders to bring Sunnis into the fold after the rebellious minority took part in the December parliamentary elections.

Iran's Role: Nothing Exists in a Vacuum

The Islamic Republic of Iran: Ruled by a group of Shiite clerics who wield power inside Iraq or attempt to. Iran's rulers say the bombing in Samarra was orchestrated by Israel and U.S.-led foreign forces hoping to promote religious violence in Iraq. No group has taken credit for the attack, but many people in Iraq suspect Sunni extremist groups.