The fallout of Samarra

Print edition : March 24, 2006

The bombing of the Al Askari shrine in Samarra takes Iraq close to a disastrous civil war.


The Damaged Golden Dome of Al Aksari mosque in Samarra.-REUTERS

THE destruction of the golden dome of a 10th century Shia shrine has pushed Iraq to the brink of a high intensity civil war. At dawn on February 22, armed men entered Al Askari shrine in Samarra and blew up the dome with explosives. The attack enraged Shias not only in Iraq but throughout the Islamic world. Its fallout, though limited so far, can become serious, especially in neighbouring Iran, which views itself as the guardian of Shia faith worldwide.

The incident unleashed a frenzy of violence in Iraq. Nearly 110 persons were killed in less than 24 hours after the attack. The dead included a prominent correspondent of the Dubai-based Al Arabiya television, and two other Iraqi journalists who were covering the Samarra incident. Their bullet-riddled bodies were found on the outskirts of the city, which is 96 kilometres north of Baghdad. The Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), an influential body of Sunni Muslims, claimed that 168 Sunni mosques had been attacked, 10 clerics killed and 15 abducted during that period. The intensity of the violence was palpable when Shia militiamen in the southern city of Basra set fire to a Sunni shrine with the 7th century tomb of Talha bin Obeid-Allah, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad.

By March 2, sectarian violence appeared to have penetrated Sadr City, a Shia slum in Baghdad, where a bomb blast inside a bus killed five persons. This incident surprised many as the enclave had been free of such incidents in the past, mainly on account of the positions taken by the Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, the area's recognised leader, who had maintained close ties with Sunni groups. But Al Sadr's image has been tarnished somewhat as Sunni groups have begun to believe that activists of his Mehdi army attacked Sunni mosques recently.

Unlike previous attacks, the Samarra incident appears to have jolted the otherwise unflappable Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the top Shia spiritual leader in Iraq. Confronted by his incensed followers, he issued a call for "peaceful" protests. These instructions surprised many, for it was almost certain that angry crowds, steeped in religiosity as the incident had taken place a few days after Moharram, would be hard to control once they took control of the streets.

Apart from the Mehdi army, which has revolted twice against the American-led occupation forces, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) has also demonstrated its firepower on several occasions. The group came of age in Iran during the Saddam years and Teheran is known to have trained and armed its military wing, the Badr Corps. The SCIRI found a place in government last year after it took part in the elections as part of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), an alliance of Shia parties. Sunni religious groups have accused activists loyal to the SCIRI of fomenting sectarian violence, including torture, after the organisation took control of the Interior Ministry.

The reason for the extraordinary response to the Samarra incident is not hard to seek. Like the controversy surrounding the publication of the Prophet's caricatures, which resulted in an outcry throughout the Islamic world, the targeting of the Al Askari shrine has been perceived as part of an assault on the cultural identity and religious faith of Shias across the globe. The shrine is deeply revered because it is part of the Imam Al Hadi mausoleum and contains the graves of the 10th and 11th imams, who are seen as direct descendants of the Prophet. Imam Ali Al Hadi, the 10th imam died in A.D. 868 and his son, Hassan Al Askari, died six years later. In the Shia religious tradition the shrine is close to the site where the last of the 12 Shia imams, Mohammed Al Mahdi, disappeared. Shias believe that Al Mahdi, a messianic figure, will return to restore justice to humanity. The dome of the shrine, which contained pieces of gold, was completed in 1905. Millions of pilgrims visit the mausoleum from various parts of the world.

The Samarra attack came at a time when Sunni-Shia tensions were already running high. Sunnis have been blamed for a series of attacks on unarmed Shias, including the bombing that killed 22 persons a day before the Samarra assault.

At the political level, the Sunni-Shia dialogue over accommodating Sunnis in a Shia-dominated government following Iraq's recent parliamentary elections has been problematic. The bombing of the shrine has now been fed into the equation, adding to the fears about the future of Iraq as a nation.

The background to the present state of Iraqi politics is revealing. As soon as the countdown for Iraq's December parliamentary elections began, the United States began to push for a "secular alternative", a combination of Sunnis and pro-U.S. parties, especially the Iraqiyah party of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, as a counterweight to Shia religious parties organised under the UIA. The reason was simple. The U.S. feared that the major constituents of the UIA were pushing Iranian interests inside Iraq, and this had to be checked, especially at a time when the hostility between Washington and Teheran appeared to have peaked after the emergence of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad as Iran's President. However, the U.S. plans fell apart once UIA won the elections and was in position to lead a new government in alliance with the Kurdish parties. The UIA chose Ibrahim Jaafari as its prime ministerial candidate. Jaafari belongs to the Islamic Daawa party and had spent time in exile in Iran during the Saddam years. Besides, he has shown what have been described as "socialist tendencies", with which the U.S. administration is not comfortable. Jaffari, for instance, has expressed his admiration for the well-known intellectual Noam Chomsky and wondered whether the American Left intellectual could visit Baghdad.

However, after the Samarra incident, the Americans appear to be making fresh plans to upset the status quo and push an alternative candidate into governmental structures through the back door. Not surprisingly, Jaafari has been brought under new pressure as he was apparently forewarned about possible attacks on Shia shrines two weeks prior to the incident. The accusation has coincided with allegations by some Sunni groups that Iran-supported Shias themselves bombed the shrine so that they could justify attacks against Sunnis as reprisals.

Significantly, there have been reports that Sunni, Kurdish and "secular" leaders are collaborating with the U.S. to remove Jaafari from the post of Prime Minister in order to form a "national unity" government. Reuters quoted an Iraqi politician as saying: "If Jaafari remains... then there will be no [national unity] government." However, it is unlikely that the U.S' attempts to push a favoured prime ministerial candidate can succeed. The UIA has 132 seats in the 275-member Parliament. A Kurd-Sunni combine does not have the numbers to bypass the UIA. A split in the UIA also does not appear likely. Members of the Fadilah (Virtue) party loyal to Al Sadr, who at one time, it was argued, could bolt from the UIA with its 15 members, are not expected to do so now.

On the contrary, it has been reported that Al Sadr's followers have taken out demonstrations in the city of Nasiriyah where they warned the Kurdish alliance not to work against the will of the nation. Neither are there any signs so far that the SCIRI will succeed in pushing its candidate, Adil Abdul Mahdi, as an alternative to Jaafari, as it cannot muster the required 66 votes within the UIA in order to succeed. Besides, Sistani, whose influence among Shias cutting across political lines is immense, is believed to be working behind the scenes to hold the UIA flock together.

The fallout of the attack has already affected the region. Iran's English language daily Tehran Times described the incident as a "new plot", which was an extension of the "disrespectful move" by European newspapers that published the caricatures of the Prophet. Hoping to discourage sectarian violence inside Iraq, the Iranians have blamed the Israelis and the Americans for the attack.

In Bahrain, which has a majority Shia population ruled by a Sunni monarchy, thousands of Shias demonstrated in Manama. Many equated the targeting of Al Askari shrine with the publishing of the cartoons. The attack has also stirred Lebanon's majority Shia population, on which the Hizbollah, which is close to Iran and Syria, exercises deep influence.

There are fears that a rise of Sunni-Shia tensions in Saudi Arabia, which borders Bahrain, would have a serious impact on the global economy as a large number of Shias reside in the eastern Al Hasa region, where most of Saudi oil resources are located. The Saudi oil giant Aramco employs a large number of Shias from this area. Alarmingly, Saudi Arabia's oil plant in Abqaiq, the world's largest, was targeted by car-borne suicide bombers within days of the Samarra incident. However, there have been no indications so far of any Shia involvement in the incidents, but oil prices climbed nearly three dollars a barrel to hit $62.91 during electronic trading at the New York mercantile exchange.

Some sections of the U.S. establishment have grasped the grave regional and global consequences of a high-profile civil war in Iraq. U.S. intelligence chief John Negroponte recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "If chaos were to descend upon Iraq or the forces of democracy were to be defeated in that country... this would have implications for the rest of the Middle East [West Asia] region and, indeed, the world... . The consequences for the people of Iraq would be catastrophic," he said. "Clearly, it would seriously jeopardise the democratic political process on which they are presently embarked. And one can only begin to imagine what the political outcomes would be." While Iraq's neighbours "initially might be reluctant" to get involved in a broader Sunni-Shia conflict, "that might well be a temptation", Negroponte warned.

While the growing sectarian tensions are in focus, a fresh undercurrent of anti-American opinion has become visible after the attack. In the Iraqi city Al Kut, around 3,000 protesters shouted slogans against the occupation, as did 10,000 demonstrators in Sadr City soon after the strike. Abdul Aziz Al Hakim, the SCIRI leader, said that the Americans had to share part of the blame for Al Askari bombing.

Faced with a weak central authority and with sectarian violence acquiring a momentum, Iraq is fast sliding into a new phase of anarchy. With no quick fix solutions in sight, it is likely that a new crop of religious warlords may emerge in the "Sunni triangle" of central Iraq and the Shia areas towards the south. The effect of this is likely to be less in the Shia areas, as the overarching authority of religious leaders such as Ayatollah Sistani has not been undermined so far. Besides, the possibility of acquiring political power, denied for nearly 400 years, within sniffing distance, the Shias are more likely to hang together, while their other religious counterparts need not.

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