Al Qaeda has apparently implemented a new strategy, going after Shia Arabs, and only Shia Arabs, without endangering Sunni Arabs. The new head of al Qaeda operations in Iraq is an Iraqi Sunni Arab, and his tactic is to concentrate on attacks against Shia mosques, preferably during prayer services. This way, you kill a lot of Shia, and only Shia. The only Sunni Arabs you will find inside a Shia Mosque are suicide bombers, and the occasional soldier or policeman looking for illegal weapons, or Shia terrorists. During three days of suicide bomb attacks last week, over 250 Shia Arabs were killed or wounded. The only Sunni Arab casualties were less than a dozen suicide bombers.
What is the practical effect of these attacks?
As intended, it does make the Iraqi Shias angrier at the Iraqi Sunni Arabs. The trouble with this is that the Shias have long been very, very angry at the Iraqi Sunni Arabs. More to the points, Shia death squads have been hunting down and killing Sunni Arabs since early 2003. That sort of thing was just ignored by the foreign media until recently. But as the number of troops and police (most of them Shia or Kurds) have increased, so have the opportunities to go after Sunni Arabs who thought they were well protected living in largely Sunni Arab neighborhoods.
This is not civil war, it's revenge. But it's also turning into ethnic (although in this case, religious) cleansing. Already, over ten percent of the Iraqi Sunni Arab population has fled the country. The people with blood on their hands, the 2-3 percent of Iraqis that ran Saddam's terror machine (the killers and their families), have fled the country to an even greater degree. About half the exiles probably belong to the "bloody hand" group. But that still leaves about half of Saddam's thugs inside Iraq, and there are thousands of armed Shia and Kurds who are out to kill these guys. If not the thugs themselves, then members of their immediate family. That's how Saddam did it, and that's how the avengers are doing it.
The majority of Iraq Sunni Arabs feel victimized by all this vengeance. Sure, nearly all Iraqi Sunni Arabs benefited from Saddam's rule. It made sense, for you take care of your own, and Saddam was a Sunni Arab, and proud of it. The trouble is, al Qaeda is also Sunni Arab, and damn proud of it. So the idea that the Iraqi Sunni Arabs can call on surrounding Sunni Arab nations (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Syria and Turkey) to come in and rescue them from Shia and Kurd vengeance, just won't work. Go to the war with Iraq and the United States, in order to defend Saddam's thugs and al Qaeda terrorists? That's a bit too far for even the most accomplished spin doctor. Maybe threaten to cut off the oil if the U.S. doesn't convince the Shia Avengers to cool it? No one's even tried that one as a trial balloon. The only oil exporting countries involved here are Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The problem is that many Kuwaitis would like to go into Iraq and kill themselves a few of these Sunni Arab thugs, so there's no danger of an oil embargo here. Saudi Arabia is currently fighting al Qaeda at home, and needs the money real bad. No "stop the oil" noise there, either.
Life isn't fair, but the Iraqi Sunni Arabs do have their backs to the wall at the moment. The majority of them want to make nice with the government and go about with their lives. Most Iraqis Sunni Arabs have resigned themselves to being out of power, at least for a decade or so. Until they work their way back into key military and government jobs. Then they do their coup magic, and get another Sunni Arab dictator in power. As the old saying goes, revenge is a dish best served cold. Trouble is, the Kurds and Shia Arabs are well aware of this particular plan.
The sectarian killing left about 1,300 dead in March. It may be higher in April. With about four million Sunni Arabs still in Iraq, many of them are already moving to traditionally all Sunni Arab towns and neighborhoods. That may be safer for the moment, but makes it easier for a Shia Arab dominated government to turn these areas into concentration camps, thus encouraging more of these people to leave the country. Unlike civil war, this population movement isn't theoretical, it's been going on since 2003, and is accelerating. The Sunni Arabs can offer no effective resistance. They have no allies. That's not a civil war. That's hopeless.