A country that has been looking down the precipice of sectarian and ethnic strife for the past few years can certainly do without more violent intra-communal rivalry. Yet it was exactly such a dangerous scenario that seemed to be unfolding when 3,000 Iraqi soldiers and policemen, supported by military tanks, aircraft and hundreds of US and Polish troops, on November 17 launched Operation Lion's Leap in the Iraqi city of Diwaniyyah, the capital of the south-central province of Qadisiyyah. The assault was supposed to flush out armed militiamen loyal to Shi’a alim Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr from the city, which has been the ground of a turf-war between Sadr's faction and its Shi’a archrival, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) led by Sayyid Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim.
Nothing resonated at the regional conference held in Baghdad last month more than the barbs exchanged by American and Iranian officials attending the conference. Yet the mere fact that officials from both countries agreed to take part in the meeting provided a window of opportunity for more substantive contacts between them over Iraq. A second meeting is expected to take place at the level of foreign ministers in Istanbul in early April.