AC: Iraq on the brink

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ANDERSON COOPER: Tonight, on a Web site, al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attempted suicide bombing of a major oil refinery complex in eastern Saudi Arabia. Two cars packed with explosives tried and failed to get through the gates and destroy a facility through which flows about two-thirds of the country's oil for export.

With us now, Peter Bergman, CNN terrorist analyst and author of "The Osama bin Laden I Know."

Peter, how does this attempted suicide bombing fit into al Qaeda's broader strategy?

PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, you know, Osama bin Laden has specifically called for attacks on Saudi and Iraqi oil facilities.

We have seen a lot of attacks on Iraqi oil facilities. And now we have seen an attack on a Saudi oil facility.

You may remember also, Anderson, that they're have been attacks on oil workers in the kingdom. So, this is something they want to do. They want to jack up the price of oil. They want to damage our economy. They want to damage the Saudi kingdom. And these kinds of attacks do all those things.

COOPER: In a government which has such control as Saudi Arabia, how is it possible that these kind of things can happen? I mean, this is a pretty repressive government.

BERGEN: Well, the Saudi government has actually done quite a good job of cracking down on al Qaeda in the post-May 2003 era, when there was attacks started in Riyadh, against the Saudi establishment, against Western residential sites.

And they have arrested something like 800 people. They have killed maybe 100 militants. And, actually, it has been quite quiet in Saudi Arabia. We haven't seen much activity from al Qaeda in the past year or so.

So, you know, eventually, they're going to get one through. It doesn't take a huge number of people to organize these kinds of attacks.

COOPER: Peter, stick around. We are going to get back to you in just a moment.

We want to move to Iraq, where unlike Waveland, the destruction is entirely manmade. Right about now, people in Baghdad are beginning to wake up to another day under a curfew, a daytime curfew. This as political and religious leaders try to head off a civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and others keep trying to start one.

More than 132 people have died in sectarian violence since jihadis blew up the Shia shrine in Samarra on Wednesday.

Today, President Bush weighed in.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This senseless attack is an affront to people of faith throughout the world.

The United States strongly condemns this cowardly act of terror and the subsequent attacks on other mosques and holy sites in Iraq. We will do everything in our power to help the Iraqi government identify and bring to justice those responsible for the terrorist acts.

This is a moment of choosing for the Iraqi people.


COOPER: "A moment of choosing for the Iraqi people."

For the most part, today, it was quiet, though gunmen fired rockets at a Shia burial ground south of Baghdad. But quiet is not the same as calm. So even as clerics on both sides of the divide, Sunni and Shia, are preaching caution, their militias, their armed militias -- because in Iraq, clerics do have militias -- they are getting ready for the worst.

Reporting on that tonight, here's CNN's Aneesh Raman.


ANEESH RAMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Clad in black, guns raised, these are the men who many say could bring civil war to Iraq. Unemployed, young, they're the followers of anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

PROFESSOR JUAN COLE, MIDDLE EAST ANALYST, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN: The Mahdi militia is drawn mainly from, yet, ghetto youth.

RAMAN: Impoverished Shia youth born into a desperate situation, often looking for a fight, whether against the Americans, who they clashed with in 2004, killing nearly a dozen U.S. forces in the process, or against the rival Shia militia, the Badr Brigade, who they have battled repeatedly in the Shia south. They are, says an expert in the Middle East, committed.

COLE: The puritanism of the Muqtada al-Sadr movement gives them something to do in life. Certainly, the Iraqi economy is a mess.

RAMAN: Based in the slums of Sadr City, where the Iraqi security forces rarely go, the Mahdi militia has, up to now, not launched all-out war on the Sunnis, in large part because they have been told not to by Sadr and by the country's Shia spiritual leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who have, up until now, told the Mahdi militia to show restraint.

But that is no longer the case. Wednesday's attack enraged the Shia and set the Mahdi militia on the attack against their Sunni foes. And now the question is, are they beyond control, out of control, the force that could push Iraq into a civil war?


COOPER: Aneesh Raman joins us now.

And, Aneesh, stay with us. We want to bring back in Peter Bergen, and also "TIME" magazine's Michael Ware, for a conversation on what exactly is going on.

Michael, is this what the insurgency has wanted all along, the brink of a full-blown sectarian war?

MICHAEL WARE, BAGHDAD BUREAU CHIEF, "TIME": Well, Anderson, this is what one particular part of the insurgency has wanted, that is, the al Qaeda element, driven by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

From the very beginning, even with differences to Osama bin Laden, he has tried to bring on this sectarian war. However, the bulk of the insurgency -- the Baathists, the former Iraqi military -- this is not what they are seeking, and this is not something that I think that they believe they can gain from. The only winners from this would be al Qaeda.

COOPER: Aneesh, imposing a daytime curfew has kept tensions at a low today. But, I mean, long term, what is the strategy for a cease-fire?

RAMAN: Well, Anderson, there's none at the moment.

These extraordinary daytime curfew are quick fixes. They keep the sectarian tensions off the streets. They do not resolve them. Politically, there are battles among leaders, in terms of how to deal with this situation. The Shia leaders have called for calm, but they have also called for continued protests. They have stopped short of condemning the reprisal attacks against the Sunnis.

So, at best, this has set Iraq back months, in terms of bridging sectarian divides. At worst, of course, the violence will still escalate -- Anderson.

COOPER: Peter, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today, "I do think there is concern that the sectarian tensions that outsiders are stoking in Iraq might try to stoke sectarian tensions in other parts of the region."

How realistic is that scenario?

BERGEN: Well, I think it's quite realistic.

I mean, we have already seen a kind of low-grade civil war in Pakistan between the Shia and Sunnis, which has going beyond -- going on for years. We have got hundreds of people dying in Pakistan in these kinds of communal violence.

And the fact that these Shia sites, the holiest sites of all are in Iraq, and they're being attacked, I think is going to resonate around the Shia world. And a -- you know, the oil attack we just referred to earlier in Saudi Arabia, of course, is in a largely Shia area.

All the important oil facilities in Saudi are basically in Shia- dominated areas, in the east of Saudi Arabia. If it did spill over into a regional problem, we have got a very large problem, not just a huge problem in Iraq, but also around the region.

COOPER: Michael, if it turns out that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was behind the initial attack, does that drive a further wedge between the insurgents and al Qaeda, or is that just wishful thinking?

WARE: Well, it could play into that. It could very much be a factor.

I mean, the Baathists, for them, this is very much a political fight. They cloak themselves in nationalist garb. And we have seen in the past, in fact, particularly during the heady days of the conflict in 2004, where we saw the Baathist insurgents cooperating and sharing technology and know-how with the Shia militia of Muqtada al-Sadr.

So, there has been common ground there before against a common enemy, being the U.S. forces. So, this could play into that divide. I mean, this is what Zarqawi has been screaming for. And this is what the old guard of al Qaeda has been telling him to calm down, to pull away from this brink. Clearly, he has no intention of doing that.

COOPER: Aneesh, a "Wall Street Journal" editorial suggests, the recent fighting might actually help Iraq in the long run, and they said -- and I quote -- "It could equally be that this week's glimpse of hell will be the medicine that pushes Iraq away from the brink, and the best revenge isn't further violence, but a successful government that progressively and permanently marginalizes those who have done them harm."

Could this, ultimately, lead everyday Iraqis to rise up against this violence that they really, heretofore, haven't risen up against?

RAMAN: Well, it could.

But given what we have seen over the past few years, in all likelihood, it won't. The divides here are deepening on a daily basis. These are viscerally emotional outbursts by the Shia and by the Sunnis, not wholly rationally thought out.

And, so, if Iraq is able to keep itself from going off that cliff into all-out civil war, what happened on Wednesday in the reprisal attacks against Sunnis, those issues will simply go on the back-burner. They can be reignited at any moment. Between Tuesday and Wednesday, this country completely changed. And that can happen again.

COOPER: Aneesh Raman, please stay safe.

Peter Bergen, thank you.

And Michael Ware, from "TIME" magazine, as always, thanks for talking, Michael.