- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Rival Shi’ite and Sunni groups are massing their militias in expectation of major confrontations, Iraqis say, even as President Bush prepares to meet today with the nation’s embattled prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

Mr. Bush’s meeting in Jordan is part of a wider attempt to involve Iraq’s neighbors in efforts to end Iraq’s vicious sectarian violence before it spills over into a larger regional conflict.

But Iraqis on both sides of their nation’s sectarian divide report worrisome signs that the conflict will soon evolve into pitched battles between large armed groups.

One secular Shi’ite speaking on the telephone from Baghdad said Shi’ite militias were massing in preparation for a large offensive against Sunnis in the capital.

“They had a big militarylike ceremony today for the Mahdi militia, to show their force. They are making themselves ready for something big — protests, fighting, killing,” said the Shi’ite.

A secular Sunni in close contact with one insurgent faction, said rebel Sunnis were also trying to form alliances among militias for a big push in the city against the Shi’ites, including more raids on government buildings.

“I am waiting for the Sunnis to launch a ‘Tet Offensive.’ That is the one plug they have not pulled yet, and I could see that happening,” said senior Rand defense analyst Ed O’Connell.

The Tet Offensive was a series of attacks by the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies that many consider a turning point in the war, leading eventually to the U.S. withdrawal.

Any emergence of pitched battles between massed groups of Sunnis and Shi’ites would largely settle a long-running argument in Washington over whether the conflict in Iraq should be described as a civil war — a description the Bush administration has so far rejected.

However the depth of concern over the rising levels of violence is evident in the flurry of diplomacy leading to Mr. Bush’s meeting with Mr. al-Maliki in Amman today.

Vice President Dick Cheney met with King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani held talks Monday and yesterday with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Both Iranian leaders pledged to help Iraq, but sharpened the political divisions with the United States by accusing Washington of destabilizing the region by supporting Sunni “outlaws.”

King Abdullah II of Jordan, meanwhile, has said that “something dramatic” must come out of the meeting because Iraq is “beginning to spiral out of control.”

While the Bush administration has been reluctant to recruit clearly hostile regimes in Tehran and Damascus into the Iraq effort, many analysts have concluded that there is no other choice.

“The only people who are going to be able to put this back into the box are not the American politicians or American military — it is the Iranians, the Syrians, the Jordanians and the Saudis,” said Mr. O’Connell.

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