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.
The 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.
Omar 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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