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Dome of the Golden Mosque Destroyed


al Qaeda likely conducted attacks; attack can lead to civil war or provide opportunity for Sunnis and Shiites to unite; al Qaeda may have made yet another miscalculation

The attempt to drag Iraqi's Shiites and Sunnis into a bloody civil war intensifies. The dome of the Shiite Al Askari Mosque in Samarra, or Golden Mosque, has been destroyed by a well planned and well executed commando-style raid of insurgents dressed as Iraqi police. According to CNN, "A group of men dressed like Iraqi police commandos set off explosives." It appears suspects are now in custody, "Ten people -- all dressed as Iraqi police commandos."

The likely culprit is al Qaeda in Iraq, or groups underneath the newly created Mujahedeen Shura Council. Zarqawi has desired a sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis since his entry into the conflict, as he clearly stated in his letter to Osama bin Laden. al Qaeda in Iraq has gone to through great pains of late to deny this, and will very likely not take credit in such an overt attack on the Shiite faithful. Silence and uncertainly will play into their hand, and feed conspiracy theories on who committed such an act. But the nature of the target and the sophistication of such an attack undeniably points to al Qaeda. The detained "commandos" will be thoroughly interrogated, and the FBI will likely be called in to determine the nature of the charges used to destroy the dome.

Golden Mosque.JPGThe significance of the mosque to the Shiites cannot be overstated. CNN provides a fact sheet on the Golden Mosque:

• The Golden Mosque is one of the four major Shiite shrines in Iraq. The other major sites are in Najaf, Kerbala and the Baghdad district of Kadhimiya.
• Two of the 12 revered Shiite Imams are buried in the shrine. Imam Ali al-Hadi, who died in 868 AD and his son, the 11th Imam Hasan al-Askari, who died in 874 A.D.
• Shiites believe the 12th Imam, Imam Mehdi, known as the hidden Imam, went into hiding from a cellar in the complex in 878 A.D. Shiites say he will return before the Day of Judgment to return justice to a world full of oppression.
• Iraqi commandos retook the Golden Mosque from insurgents during a U.S.-led offensive against Samarra in October 2004.

Golden Mosque Destroyed.jpgOmar at Iraq the Model provides an on-the-ground report on the tensions and developments in Iraq. Encouragingly, Grand Ayatollah Sistani has urged restrain. Surprisingly Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand anti-American cleric, leader of the Mahdi Army, and opponent of Sistani has also called for restraint:

Ayatollah Sistani reacted quickly to the escalating anger by issuing a fatwa that forbids his followers from "Taking any action against Sunni sites" obviously to discourage his followers from carrying out retaliatory attacks on Sunni mosques. Sistani has also demanded a 7 day mourning and to consider it a week off but the government so far has announced only a 3 day official mourning. Muqtada cut his tour in Lebanon and is heading back to Baghdad, he called on his followers from Beirut to "have self-control and refrain from violence".

Omar also states "The Association of Muslim scholars and the Islamic Party condemn the 'criminal act'" and there is talk from the Iraqi government of immediately rebuilding the dome. Also, the "head of the Sunni endowment sheikh Ahmed al-Samarra'I announces that he will allocate 2 billion dinars (~1.4 million $) for the rebuilding of the shrine from the treasury of the Sunni endowment." There have unfortunately been random attacks on Sunni mosques, mostly drive-by shooting related, but no major attacks at this time.

This is a critical juncture in the development of Iraq. The timing of the attack was well-designed, as the negotiations to for the Iraqi government are still underway. Not only is Zarqawi trying to stoke a sectarian war, he is attempting to alienate the Sunni political parties from the government. The response of the Shiite and Sunni politicians and clerical leadership is vital to the outcome of this dire situation, and initial reactions are encouraging.

Iraq's security forces are going into "lockdown" mode - much like the security provided during the elections. With the government imposed mourning period, the Iraqi people will likely see restricted travel, increased checkpoints and searches, and various other measures to reduce the likelihood of revenge attacks from renegade Shiites and Sunnis. The Coalition forces would do well to maintain a low profile where possible and act in a supporting role to the Iraqi Security Forces.

Shiites have been subjected to a series of outrages since the fall of Saddam's regime, including the murder of Abdul Majid al-Khoei, who was hacked to death at the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf; numerous other murders of Shiite clerics; multiple mass-casualty suicide bombings, some aimed at mosques; Muqtada al-Sadr's uprising and violations of the sanctity the Imam Ali shrine; kidnappings and a host of other crimes. The Shiites have been given every opportunity to marshal the will to strike back but have shown remarkable restraint.

Ayatollah Sistani is often accused as being an agent of the Iranians, however this representation is far from accurate. He stands in direct opposition to the Khomienist mode of Shiite governance, and believes in a strict separation between the civilian government and religious institutions. He has rarely weighed in on political matters, but would be wise to maintain a visible presence on this issue and continue to call for restraint and reconciliation via religious fatwas.

The alternative is for Sistani to cede the leadership to Muqtada al-Sadr, the real agent of the Iranians, who could easily spin the attack on the Golden Mosque as a U.S. conspiracy to divide the Iraqi people and further the return to Sunni rule. Sadr's response to the attack over the next few days should be closely watched, and any attempt to divide the Iraqi people may very well lead to the long put off showdown between the Sadr and Sistani wings of the Shiite political coalition, which can prove to be more explosive than the destruction of any mosque.

The Byzantine political situation in Iraq has just become more chaotic with the destruction of the Golden Mosque, but it also may provide an opportunity for Sunnis and Shiites to see just how close to the abyss they are with respect to a civil war, and work towards avoiding such a situation through political means. The Shiites currently control the levers of power in Iraq, including the military and police apparatuses, and could easily decimate Sunni mosques and cities if they so desired. The Sunnis have far more to lose by a sectarian war than the Shiites, and they know this. al Qaeda may have scored a short term gain with yet another shocking display of violence, but this could be another miscalculation that further alienates them in the eyes of the Iraqi people. If the Shiites and Sunnis play their cards correctly.



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READER COMMENTS: "Dome of the Golden Mosque Destroyed"

Posted by Pete Paraschos at February 22, 2006 11:14 AM ET:

Outstanding analysis. And timely too.

Posted by Soldier's Dad at February 22, 2006 12:32 PM ET:

"This is a critical juncture in the development of Iraq."

Yep, today they have to decide whether or not a civil war is worthwhile.

Posted by Joseph Dhagin at February 22, 2006 1:59 PM ET:

[comments deleted... see the comments policy]

Posted by RockTheMarne at February 22, 2006 3:03 PM ET:

I was in Samarra for OIF 3 and I remember that it was very rare for the enemy to shoot even in the general direction of the Golden Mosque. The indigenous (money driven) terrorists would leave it alone. This seems like it could only be the work of foreign terrorist cells.

Posted by doc99 at February 22, 2006 3:04 PM ET:

Don't discount the Iranians here.

Posted by GK at February 22, 2006 4:00 PM ET:

This is a chance for the US to be really smart here. Channel Shia/Iranian anger towards Zarqawi and Al-Qaeda.

This is how the Brits conquered a third of the world.... the US would be wise to maneuver shrewdly, in the same manner, here.

Posted by hamidreza at February 22, 2006 4:08 PM ET:

Sadr and the Sunnis are going to blame this on the Americans. Will the Shiites believe them?

Probably the job of Sunni Islamists allied with Iranian Pasdaran Quds brigade.

The rule of Taqiyya in Islam says that you can commit any atrocity you wish, as long as Islam benefits. Blowing up the well or cellar where the 12th Imam Mahdi, the Messiah, went into occlusion is NOT beyond these Iranian Islamofascists.

Posted by TallDave at February 22, 2006 4:18 PM ET:

Surprisingly Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand anti-American cleric, leader of the Mahdi Army, and opponent of Sistani has also called for restraint

This is actually not unprecedented. Sadr has recently become, oddly enough, the best friend of the Sunnis.

The reasons, of course, are political, and mostly cynical and self-serving. Democratic politics creates strange bedfellows.

Posted by Dave From Chicago at February 22, 2006 6:09 PM ET:

uhh, talk about a downer. Well Rumsfeld or whoever is working with the Iraqi government better get this under control fast. If they screwup here we're not gonna get another chance. I'm starting to get a bad feeling about the whole dang thing!

Posted by Dave From Chicago at February 22, 2006 6:15 PM ET:

BTW, if they caught the guys who blew up the Mosque how come they haven't ID'ed them yet? I agree with Doc, Iran could be behind this. With the UN meeting soon causing panic in Iraq just makes everything more complicated. This could get ugly trying to fix Iraq and meanwhile facing off with Iran. Not to mention China and Russian are doing next to nothing to help us.

Posted by SDN at February 22, 2006 8:36 PM ET:

If they would take it from us, we should send money to rebuild.

Posted by Puddle Pirate at February 22, 2006 9:28 PM ET:

President Bush just pledged financial help to restore the dome.

Posted by SGT DB Medzyk at February 22, 2006 9:32 PM ET:

So sad. The dome can be seen for miles, especially when the sun glares off all that shiny gold. It was so beautiful. I pray that it will be rebuilt soon.

Posted by RockTheMarne at February 22, 2006 10:31 PM ET:

I lived a few blocks from it in the Samarra green zone last spring. It was splendidly lit up during the night too. The gold plated dome really added to the effect. It was definitely the most prominent and well built structure in that whole nasty rubbled dump of a city. I can't say I care much about Shia Islam, but it is disturbing to see such a building wrecked just to advance an extremist agenda.

Posted by Froggy at February 23, 2006 2:05 AM ET:

Bill,
Are you certain that the culprits have been apprehended? I can't seem to find any info on this. Thanks for your analysis.

Posted by Cindy at February 23, 2006 3:20 AM ET:

wow. It's really hard to assimilate all that is going on over there, from over here. I hope and pray for everyone in the Middle East right now.