The Golden Dome of the al-Askaria Mosque and its two minarets prior to the bombings in 2006 and 2007.
The Shia mosque at the epicenter of last year’s explosion of sectarian violence hit again
Just as U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces have begun to get the sectarian violence back to pre February 2006 levels, the minarets of Samarra’s al-Askaria mosque, one of the most holy shrines in Shia Islam, were destroyed in a pair of bombings this morning. Explosives charges were placed at the base of the towers, and detonated within seven minutes. The Golden Dome of the al-Askaria mosque was destroyed by al Qaeda in February of 2006, which touched off the wave of Sunni – Shia bloodletting, driven largely by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army on one side, and al Qaeda in Iraq on the other.
In the wake of the destruction of al-Askaria’s minarets, the Iraqi government immediately announced curfews of indefinite lengths in Samarra and Baghdad. Iraqi troops are said to have been rushed out onto streets of Baghdad, and an additional Iraqi Army brigade is being rushed to Samarra.
Both the U.S. and Iraqi governments have pointed the finger at al Qaeda in Iraq as the primary suspect in the attack. Major General Benjamin Mixon, the commander of Multinational Division North, said the evidence points to an “inside job” and that “members of the Iraqi Security Forces who were guarding the site either assisted or directly took part in helping al Qaeda insurgents place and detonate explosives at the mosque’s minarets.”
Security for the al-Askaria mosque is provided for by Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which is dominated by the Shia. Lieutenant General Martin E. Dempsey, the recently departed commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq, told us that up to 85% of the Iraqi police are Shia. The 3rd Battalion, 3rd Brigade of the 1st Iraqi National Police Division is responsible for security in Samarra, and took over security from local police in April of 2007.
CNN noted that 15 members of the Iraqi National Police were detained for suspicion in the involvement in the attack. The Washington Post reported “the entire Iraqi security force responsible for guarding the mosque, the 3rd Battalion of the Salahadin province police, was detained for investigation.”
There are conflicting reports on exactly what happened in Samarra prior to the attack. A Reuters report indicated there was an attempt to target the mosque two weeks ago. AFP reported “a new batch of security force came from Baghdad to take over the security of the shrine from the previous force and there was a row between the two groups which saw some exchange of fire… Finally, the new force did take up the security. The previous force was local from the town of Tikrit.”
CNN reported “The blast followed clashes between gunmen and Iraqi National Police, who were guarding the holy site. During the firefight, the insurgents entered the mosque, also known as the Golden Dome, planted explosives around the minarets and detonated them.”
Al Qaeda in Iraq is known to have been behind the 2006 bombing in Samarra. In June of 2006, Coalition forces arrested Yousri Fakher Mohammed Ali, “a key al-Qaida suspect” February 2006 bombing of the Golden Dome. Ali, aka Abu Qudama, is of Tunisian origin, was wounded during a raid in Baqubah where “fifteen other foreign fighters were killed in the confrontation.” Haitham Sabah Shaker Mohammed al-Badri is believed to be the ringleader in the 2006 Samarra operation, and is still on the loose.
Today’s bombing in Samarra benefits two parties: al Qaeda in Iraq, and Muqtada al Sadr. Both parties have little desire for reconciliation, and their power is derived by the continuation of sectarian violence. Both parties are in fact the driving forces behind the sectarian attacks.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has conducted a multitude of mass casualty attacks against Shia civilian, religious and cultural targets in an attempt to provoke a backlash against the Sunni. This has allowed al Qaeda to then promote themselves as the protector of the minority Sunnis from the roving gangs of Shia death squads. Al Qaeda also is working to destabilize the Iraqi government and sow distrust in the security forces.
Muqtada al Sadr, who returned from four months of hiding in Iran at the end of May, has struggled to regain control over his fractured Mahdi Army, which split in his absence. The attack on the Samarra mosque is the perfect opportunity for Sadr to promote himself as the protector of the Shia, and attempt to rally the split elements of the Mahdi Army. The attack on the Samarra mosque makes it all the more difficult to attack elements of the Mahdi Army loyal to Sadr.
Sadr has organized protests and a period of mourning and took the opportunity to call for the end of the U.S. presence in Iraq. “Let the next three days be mourning days, where we spread the black banners and a call to prayer and shouting God is great in our mosques, whether they are Sunnis or Shiites, and to organize peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins in order for everyone to witness that the only enemy of Iraq is the occupation and therefore everyone must demand its departure or a timetable of its occupation.”
Sadr also stated Sunnis or Muslims could not be responsible for the attack, and accused the U.S. of being behind the attacks. He referred to the Samarra bombing as an “American-Israeli scenario that aims to spread the turmoil and plant the hatred among the Muslim brethren.”
There have yet to be reports of attacks on the Sunni population from Shia death squads. The next several days will be crucial in keeping a lid on the violence to prevent the reigniting of sectarian violence that threatens to plunge the country into a full scale civil war.
This report was compiled from multiple sources:
• Washington Post: Blasts Destroy Remnants of Samarra Shiite Shrine
• The Long War Journal: Dome of the Golden Mosque Destroyed
• The Long War Journal: An Interview with General Dempsey
• The Long War Journal: Sadr returns from Iran
• The Long War Journal: Maliki clarifies reconciliation; Task Force 145 continues operations