IT could be a throwback to the 2006-07 days if the sectarian conflict now in evidence in Iraq is not checked. The death toll in five days of violence has crossed 200, and, judging by the situation, is likely to keep increasing. Bomb blasts and clashes with security forces have taken place not just in Baghdad but in many Sunni-majority provinces as well. Although violence erupted on Tuesday, when security forces attacked a protest camp in Hawija near the town of Kirkuk, the situation worsened after Friday prayers in several cities after four Sunni mosques, located in and outside Baghdad, were bombed. In Ramadi in the Anbar province, a mosque imam warned there could be more bloodshed, unless the army withdrew from the city. The Sunnis are now demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has appealed for calm and warned of sectarian conflict. He has appointed Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, as chairman of the Hawija enquiry committee. But the Maliki government is unstable, and some Sunni ministers have already resigned as a protest against the raid.

Iraq seems to be coming apart at the seams, with Kurdistan enjoying autonomy and dealing with multinationals directly for oil sales. A worsening of sectarian animosities could lead to anarchy and provide ideal conditions for Al Qaeda to turn Iraq into a base of operations. If such a scenario is to be prevented both the Sunni and Shia communities must exercise restraint, and not play into the hands of those advocating violence. Mercifully, some top Shia and Sunni clerics have come together and appealed for peace and sectarian harmony. Their efforts will get a boost if Saudi Arabia and Iran can use their influence to stabilise the situation.

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