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Analyst: Attacks may provoke Shias

An injured Shiite pilgrim is taken to a hospital after explosions in Baghdad.
An injured Shiite pilgrim is taken to a hospital after explosions in Baghdad.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Attacks in the Iraqi cities of Baghdad and Karbala have killed more than 140 people, many of them Shiite Muslims attending festivals marking the holy day of Ashura.

Professor Robert Springborg, director of the Middle East Institute at the University of London, discussed the implications with CNN anchor Charles Hodson.

Hodson: Who would you guess is behind this? Are we looking at former regime loyalists or al Qaeda? Are we looking at Iraqi Sunni Muslim nationalists who want to get at the Shia community?

Springborg: Well, Sunnis throughout the Middle East have anxieties about rising Shia power and would like to promote problems wherever they may be out of this apprehension and fear. The more likely explanation though is they are not really targeting the Shias but the United States. They are using the Shias to get at the Americans, to make their life in Iraq very difficult.

Hodson: Interestingly, locals there are blaming the Americans, saying this will rebound on them.

Springborg: That's precisely why I think (the attackers are) probably those who want to disrupt any American overall plan, which is now endorsed more or less by the United Nations to carry through the process of rebuilding Iraq, culminating in elections later this year. Striking on this particular day is a very brutal, but very effective, way of doing that.

Hodson: We've got a much broader situation here with the United States trying to hasten that process along, so effectively they can pull back or at least withdraw to military bases. Where all does this leave U.S. policy in Iraq?

Springborg: Well it exposes it precisely as you suggest because the Iraqi people themselves cannot be defended. One general said he doesn't have the leadership, meaning his commanders within the police force, to do that. That leaves only the occupying powers, chief of which is the United States. It would be unwise for American troops to be on the ground in large numbers to try to prevent this kind of attack. And it could provoke more violence.

The question is, how do you get the Iraqis up to speed to prevent these sort of things occurring in a short period of time ... when all these intricate transition arrangements have to be put into place. That's the weakness of the whole plan, and that's why it can easily be exploited by these sorts of people. The short answer is: It's going to be very, very, very difficult.

This is going to inflame Shia passions against Sunnis beyond a doubt, and it makes the job much more difficult.

Hodson: Let's look at the broader security situation: Do you see the risk of a civil war as a result of these events?

Springborg: No one event is going to cause a civil war. There have to be many things going into it. Do we have the capacity to stop retaliatory violence, which has not occurred thus far by Shias against Sunnis? The Shias have definitely been containing themselves, in part because they think they are going to come out of this very much better than the Sunnis. They are in a majority, and (the) electoral process would ultimately give them majority control of the government.

All the Shia leadership, including the most radical, have been urging their followers to follow this process and let it come to fruition, and we will then, in a sense, triumph through democracy. Whether that leadership can contain the passions that are going to be aroused by this now is another matter.

Each one of these events raises the price to the Shia leadership of being moderate. Some of them could well decide there's nothing in this: Let's unleash our people; let's have retaliation.

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