Shiite Leader: Civil War Avoidable

The leader of Iraq's largest Shiite (search) political party expressed certainty Tuesday that a civil war will not break out in his country despite an increase in violence.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim (search), who heads both the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the governing United Iraqi Alliance, also told The Associated Press in an interview that he favored the death penalty as a means of reducing the violence — which has left more than 620 Iraqis dead since the Shiite-led government was announced on April 28.

Al-Hakim said insurgents have been trying to start a civil war between Iraq's Shiite majority and Sunni minority since the fall of Saddam Hussein's (search) regime in April 2003.

"The awareness of the Iraqi people and the links between them will prevent such a war, God willing," he said in his heavily guarded Baghdad home overlooking the Tigris River.

Sunni Muslims opposed to Iraq's Shiite-dominated government are thought to provide the backbone of the insurgency, and some Sunni extremists have been attacking Shiite targets in an effort to provoke a sectarian war.

The attacks, al-Hakim said, were "the last card in order to incite sectarian war" and pointed to three against Shiites on Monday that killed nearly 50 people and injured more than 100.

They were an attack in the northern town of Tal Afar that killed at least 20, a suicide bombing against a Shiite mosque south of Baghdad that left at least 10 dead, and a car bomb at a restaurant near a Shiite neighborhood in the capital that killed at least eight.

Al-Hakim said insurgents and groups such as Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq had made starting a civil war a priority.

In a letter to Usama bin Laden that was intercepted by the U.S. military last year, al-Zarqawi said that causing sectarian fighting between Shiite and Sunni was the best way to undermine American policy in Iraq.

Civil war, al-Hakim said, was "not a new aim. It is a plan that was declared during the first months after the fall of Saddam's regime, and al-Zarqawi said it in his known letter."

One way of dealing with the recent spike in violence was to begin implementing the death penalty in Iraq, al-Hakim said.

The death penalty was abolished by the U.S.-led occupation forces shortly after the invasion, but reintroduced in August 2004 for crimes including murder, endangering national security and drug trafficking. It has not yet been carried out.

"There is a will in the government for this law to be implemented and therefore we must implement these laws and measures," he said when asked about the death penalty. "We are a Muslim country that believes in justice and punishment, therefore we must implement these principles."

He said that not implementing the death penalty "was one of the reasons behind the spread of terrorism."

One way out of the crisis, according to al-Hakim, was to involve the Sunni minority both in political life and in the drafting of Iraq's new constitution.

"They should have a real participation and their points of view should be taken seriously," he said.

He denied accusations by some senior Sunni leaders that Shiite militias were responsible for a recent spate of sectarian attacks and killings.

The leader of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars, Sheik Haridh al-Dhari, last week charged SCIRI's military wing, the Badr Brigades, of being behind the killing.

"There is no problem between Badr and the Association of Muslim Scholars," al-Hakim said, calling it "an accusation without any proof against Badr."

Al-Hakim said that a committee made up of the association, Badr representatives and followers of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was working to defuse the tension caused by the charges.