WASHINGTON, Oct 18 (Reuters) US officials in Baghdad fear that violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites in some areas will erupt into ''ethnic cleansing'' with the departure of US forces, a government watchdog said today.
The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction warned in a report that lower levels of sectarian violence attributed to President George W Bush's surge strategy have not produced lasting political reconciliation in Baghdad and its neighboring Diyala province.
''Some of (the) districts and neighborhoods remain too 'hot' for reconciliation to take place,'' said the SIGIR report, which included a review of Bush's diplomatic initiative to stabilize Iraq with provincial reconstruction teams consisting of US civilian and military officials.
''In areas that included mixed Sunni-Shia populations, we were told, the departure of US forces would produce open battlegrounds of ethnic cleansing,'' the report said.
There has been no end to the relentless violence in Iraq, but attacks in Baghdad and surrounding areas have fallen since President George W Bush sent an extra 30,000 troops as part of a strategy to stabilize the Iraqi capital in hopes of fostering political reconciliation. There are currently 171,000 US troops in the country.
But analysts say the fractured Iraqi government has not addressed underlying grievances between Sunnis and Shi'ites. They warn that sectarian violence could re-escalate after the planned withdrawal of 20,000 US combat troops by next July.
Sectarian violence surged after the February 2006 bombing of a Shi'ite mosque in mainly Sunni Samarra. Analysts say one reason for the recent drop in violence is the scale of sectarian ''cleansing'' that has since occurred in once-mixed Sunni and Shi'ite districts.
It was not clear what implications the potential for renewed sectarian violence cited by the SIGIR report would have for planned US troop withdrawals.
The SIGIR report also gave few specifics about the districts of the Iraqi capital and Diyala province that appear to be at greatest risk. But it did name southern Baghdad's Doura market as a place where Shi'ite militas could be expected to expel Sunni shopkeepers if US forces withdrew.
US officials have cautioned that the pace of withdrawal will depend upon the security situation on the ground in Baghdad and its environs.
The SIGIR report characterized political reality for the average Iraqi in Baghdad's neighborhoods as ''a matter of intimidation and fear.'' ''Sunni and Shia extremists target local government officials, religious leaders and tribal sheikhs who step forward to help on matters of reconciliation,'' the report said.
''Governance advisors ... noted that Baghdad had largely lost key components of its civil society -- senior civil service, academics and business leaders -- making it difficult to identify and recruit serious and capable partners.'' The SIGIR report said the Iraq PRT program, on which the Bush administration has spent 1.9 billion dollars in hopes of bringing stability to Iraq's 18 provinces, has had incremental successes across the country but has also been undermined by violence.
The government watchdog also said the program continues to lack a comprehensive plan with clearly defined objectives. It called on US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and US Iraq Commander Gen David Petraeus to establish such a plan.
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