An Eye For an Eye

As the violence in Iraq grows more shocking and brutal, TIME explores the roots of the murderous rage--and why the U.S. may be powerless to stop it

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But if Khalilzad intended to soothe the anxieties of the Sunnis the U.S. has tried to coax into the government, his comments only further outraged Shi'ites. For their part, Shi'ite politicians point out that thousands in their community have been killed in Sunni terrorist attacks since the fall of Saddam Hussein. "After every tragedy, every time that the terrorists pour [gasoline] over our emotions, we tell our people to be patient, to remain calm," said Jassim al-Mutairi, a political aide to al-Sadr. "But each time, we worry that the next [terrorist] attack will be the one to light the match."

The Samarra explosion was surely designed to set sectarian hostilities aflame. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing of al-Askari, but suspicion fell on al-Qaeda in Iraq. Its leader there, Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, subscribes to an extremist Sunni view that regards Shi'ism as an apostasy and all shrines as idolatrous abominations. Al-Zarqawi, whose group comprises mainly foreign jihadis, has encouraged his followers to attack Iraqi Shi'ite targets.

They could hardly have picked a more provocative one than al-Askari. It is associated with three venerated Shi'ite imams, including the Mahdi, or Hidden Imam, who is believed to have disappeared in 878 into a tunnel directly under al-Askari. The two imams buried in the shrine were the Mahdi's father and grandfather. Most Shi'ites believe that the Mahdi will one day reappear as a messiah to bring justice to the world. That makes al-Askari one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest sites, exceeded in veneration only by the shrines of Najaf and Karbala. Even Samarra's Sunnis hold al-Askari in high esteem. The expression "to swear by the shrine" is routinely used by both communities. Insurgent groups that have occasionally operated out of Samarra since the fall of Saddam's regime made sure to give al-Askari a wide berth. And when U.S. and Iraqi forces stormed Samarra in October 2004, they took special care not to damage the shrine. Struggling to explain their emotions at the sight of the shattered dome, many Shi'ites cited the U.S. response to the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center. "This is our 9/11," became a common refrain for Shi'ite commentators.

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