Minarets of Samarra’s al-Askaria mosque destroyed; al Qaeda prime suspect

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:

AP: Iraq bombers hit key Samarra mosque

Reuters: US military says on alert after Iraq mosque attack

Reuters: Minarets blown up at revered Iraq Shi’ite shrine

Reuters: Iraq shrine attack had marks of al Qaeda, US says

AFP: Minarets of Iraqi Shia shrine blown up

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

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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14 Comments

  • John Stone says:

    Sadr and Iran Did it.

  • Andrew R. says:

    This maybe helps Sadr with respect to his prestige vs. Hakim’s, but it doesn’t help with the country at large IMO. After all, if the JAM goes on a killing spree, it completely undoes everything he’s been trying to do by building up his cred as a pan-Iraqi nationalist. Sadr is a bad, scary figure, but he’s only one in a constellation of many, and pales in comparison to Al-Masri. And this does have Al-Masri’s fingerprints all over it.

    He’s been very cagey in responding to crackdowns in Diayala, Baghdad, and Anbar by attempting to cut the bridges that link parts of Iraq and maintain civil society. In fact, with a good chunk of the Ba’ath insurgency turning against him, it seems that his best hope now is to try and destroy what tattered vestiges Iraq has left of civil society.

  • Neo says:

    No way to hang a silver lining in this cloud. The Sunni’s absolutely must band together to get rid of Al Quada. Their very existence depends on it. Al Quada is a cult of death doesn’t have anything to offer actual living people.
    I wish our president would get off his rhetorical butt and give just such a message to the Sunni population. It’s not about whether they like Americans, it’s a fight for survival and Al Quada will be the end of them.

  • anand says:

    If Khamenei or Muqtada’s complicity could be proven, their own most ardent supporters would tear them up and eat them alive. Their movements, and the clerical regime in Iran would collapse overnight.
    Neither would be foolish enough to risk all that.
    I must admit, this is the most depressing news from Iraq this year. The INP 3-3-1 was suppose to be a quality unit that had completed QL II.
    This is a major blow to the credibility of the entire INP (which in the minds of many Iraqis will discredit Badr, Bayan Jabr, SIC, Hakim). Muqtada will claim that Hakim/Jabr messed up the MoI, and Samarra is a result of that. The only savior for the Shia in Iraq is Muqtada and his Jaish al Mahdi (as Bill said in his post).
    Many Iraqi Shia will also conclude that Maliki/Dawa is incompetent and unable to protect them (Samarra, the many bridges and other terrorist attacks).
    In their sorrow during this emotional moment, many Iraqis (like Muqtada) will blame US troops in addition to the GoI and ISF for being unable (or worse–as Muqtada sometimes implies–unwilling) to protect them.
    The Arabs outside Iraq have abandoned Iraq, or worse, are actively rooting for them to fail:
    //uruknet.info/?p=m33567&s1=h1.
    I fear that these attacks will be used to bang Iraqis on the head by their neighbors and some in the international community, rather than as an occasion to express empathy with respect to Iraq’s challenges and stand shoulder to shoulder with Iraqis.
    Iraq will feel compelled to ask both us and Iran for help.

  • Tony says:

    Bill, whom do you think is the more likely culprit here, Sadr or al Qaeda?

  • ECH says:

    The Shia wouldn’t believe Sadr did it if they had a video tape of Sadr planting the bombs. The Shia are not educated they are deeply religious and are very much loyal to their religious leaders.
    I wouldn’t be suprised if Sadr and Iran are working hand and hand with al-Qaeda.
    My personal belief is the Iraqi National Police should be disbanded. And, the Iraqi Army doubled in size. The INP are simply too infiltrated by Shia and Sunni militias.

  • MattR says:

    Seems odd that both of the minarets were destroyed and not the main dome. If you wanted to cause trouble wouldn’t you destroy the whole thing? That would be AQ’s MO. Maybe there’s a simple reason, but I’m staying tuned.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Michael,
    It actually looks like a provincial SWAT team was in charge of the mosque security. I am working a post on this now.

  • Tony says:

    Last year (March 2006) it was promised that reconstruction of this mosque would be given high priority as a symbolic way of demonstrating Iraqi unity in the face of terror.
    Does anyone know the status of the reconstruction at the time of this latest attack?

  • DJ Elliott says:

    Tony
    Like the WTC it was delayed in council.
    Plan was to start after the Samarra Brigade took over latter this year. Enhanced security.

  • the nailgun says:

    Do we know how many lives were lost? If I remember correctly when the dome went down hundreds of lives were lost. Maybe I am the eternal optimist but if “only” the minarets went down maybe the provocation isn’t as severe this time.
    Coupled with the lesson of last time hopefully as it appears is the case the Govt is moving fast and hard to head off trouble this time.
    Again maybe too optimistic but if Sadr sends in the death squads hard this time I wonder if that would be all that strategically smart? It would also be the greenlight to go after JAM real real hard too. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

  • Tony says:

    I’d sure like to see it rebuilt as quickly as humanly possible. It’s obviously a very sore spot for Shia everywhere. Imagine if St. Peter’s square was the subject of a huge bomb, Catholics everywhere would not rest until it was rebuilt. Although I’m not Catholic, I can understand their sentiments.
    And their could be no better way for thousands of Sunnis to express their resistance to terrorist outrages and sectarian slaughter than to help rebuild this mosque. Are there any volunteers from the ASC?
    I’d like to see joint Shia/Sunni teams reconstructing this right away and also joint Shia/Sunni teams working on rebuilding a few key Sunni mosques that have been destroyed.
    General Petraeus has emphasized the need for reconstruction to accelerate. I think my ideas expressed here are an excellent place to start.

  • Anthony says:

    TONY,
    Catholics everywhere would indeed rally around the rebuilding of St Peter’s, and contribute hundreds of millions for its reconstruction. We wouldn’t, however, expect the government of Italy or the United States to rebuild it for us.

  • MattR says:

    Thanks Michael for being so kind to my ignorance. I thought this was a different mosque.

    Tony has a point, though. There’s a power vacuum and someone would gain respect by starting to rebuild this mosque. If Sistani and some Sunni leader of one of the awakenings got together on this they could take the high ground, and all the people that are tired of the violence, by showing that this was an Iraqi mosque and not just a Shiite mosque. Maybe I’m wrong but after so many years of violence an Iraqi Martin Luther King or Lech Walesa could be a tipping point. Iraq needs a leader and not just bureaucrats and politicians. Anthony is correct in that it can’t be a non-Iraqi, but Petraeus and Crocker could turn lemons into lemonade if they could talk someone into taking advantage of this problem.

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