KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) -Hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite pilgrims gathered in the sacred Iraqi city of Kerbala on Sunday for a religious event held under tight security as a top politician said Iraq was already in a sectarian civil war.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, writing to mark the third anniversary of the invasion, said to disengage from Iraq now would be like handing Germany “back to the Nazis” in 1945.
In Baghdad, Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders were still struggling to form a national unity government more than three months after elections, raising fears that a political vacuum will play into the hands of insurgents and fuel violence.
Former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said civil war was already a reality and that Iraq was nearing the “point of no return” on a path toward all-out military conflict.
Flying flags and flailing themselves, a sea of people filled roads to Kerbala ahead of Arbain, mourning the dead of the 7th century battle that confirmed a schism in Islam that has left Iraq dangerously divided between Sunnis and Shi’ites today.
Aside from a mortar that landed near a garage and caused no casualties, the event, which centers on Monday evening, was calm. But the blast was a reminder of Sunni Arab suicide bombers who have turned previous Shi’ite religious events into carnage.
Allawi, a secular Shi’ite appointed under U.S. supervision in 2004 and whose major offensives against both Shi’ite and Sunni guerrillas failed to halt insurgencies, warned that Iraq had already plunged into sectarian civil war.
“It is unfortunate that we are in civil war. We are losing each day as an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is,” he told BBC television on Sunday.
“Iraq is in the middle of a crisis. Maybe we have not reached the point of no return yet. But we are moving toward this point. We are in a terrible civil conflict now.”
He said that if Iraq were to crumble, sectarian violence would spread throughout the Middle East with Europe and the United States also feeling the impact.
Those concerns are shared in Washington, which is also keeping a close eye on Iraq’s strategic oil-rich but dangerous neighborhood, home to some close allies and worst enemies.
A defiant Shi’ite Iran has nuclear ambitions and both Sunni Saudi Arabia and Jordan have suffered from a deadly al Qaeda campaign to topple pro-Western Arab governments.
“Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis,” Rumsfeld wrote in the Washington Post ahead of Monday’s anniversary of the invasion on March 20, 2003.
Wary that an attack on the Shi’ite pilgrims could unleash a new wave of bloody reprisals, the Kerbala authorities deployed at least 8,000 Iraqi police and soldiers in the city.
Mehdi Army militiamen loyal to fiery Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr were also taking part in security precautions which include sandbags set up around Kerbala, 110 km (68 miles) southwest of Baghdad.
Local officials say they expect as many as 2 million people to attend the mourning ritual on Monday evening.
Under pressure to raise hopes in Iraq and back home that stability is possible, the U.S. military carried on with what it called the biggest helicopter transport of troops since the invasion. But there have been few signs of significant fighting or arrests in the operation near Samarra, north of Baghdad.
U.S. troops killed nine people, including a family, after their patrol was ambushed in a nearby town early on Sunday, Iraqi police said.
Police said three of the victims were a 13-year-old boy and his parents who were shot dead when U.S. soldiers entered their house in the Sunni town of Duluiya, about 90 km (60 miles) north of Baghdad.
“A patrol of U.S. forces was attacked by gunmen using rocket propelled grenades,” Duluiya police said.
The U.S. military said it was checking the report.
There are 133,000 U.S. troops in Iraq trying to maintain security and train local security forces to keep a lid on the violence. Both countries reject claims Iraq has already slid into civil war.
But U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has been speaking frankly about avoiding the point of no return after the bombing of a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra last month pushed the country closer than ever to full-blown civil war.