Behind the Blast of the 'Golden Mosque'

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GETTY; KHALID MOHAMMED / AP

Iraqis survey the damage at the shrine, where they once gathered to worship, right, before it was bombed

Men dressed as Iraqi police commandos slipped into Samarra's shrine of two revered leaders of Shi’ite Islam, set up explosives and blew it up this morning, causing the golden dome to collapse and with it, perhaps, American hopes for a national unity government in Iraq.

While there has been no claim of responsibility, suspicions immediately fell on al Qaeda in Iraq, and their Sunni allies in the insurgency. Shi’ite reactions were swift and violent. Mobs from the predominantly Shi'ite Shu'lah neighborhood in western Baghdad attacked Sunni mosques in Ghazaliya, a nearby Sunni area. Gunmen were out on the streets of Sadr City, home base for rebel cleric—and parliamentary power broker—Moqtada al-Sadr. In Basra, there were reports of heavy street fighting between Sunni and Shi'ite gunmen. Elsewhere, Sunni political party offices were attacked.

For the Americans, the collapse of the golden dome could also deal a damaging blow to the political process of forming a broad-based new government. Since the main Shi’ite coalition in Parliament renominated the widely disliked Ibrahim al-Jaafari for the position of prime minister, the U.S. has been edging away from its Shi’ite allies in the government and lining up with secular parties, Sunnis and Kurds, all in an effort to bring more Sunnis into the cabinet. This is the key part of their plan to undermine the Sunni insurgency and begin the withdrawal of American troops.

Today’s attack will at the very least complicate those efforts. It’s unlikely that the Shi’ite alliance in Parliament, which is dominated by Moqtada al-Sadr, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Badr Organization, is in any mood to compromise after today. And even if they were in such a mood, they would likely face revolts by their followers for appearing to reward those groups responsible for the destruction of the fourth holiest Shi’ite shrine with cabinet posts.

Just on Monday, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad threatened the Iraqi government with a loss of funds for training their military unless the new government being hammered out was “non-sectarian.” “The ministers, particularly security ministers, have to be people who are non-sectarian, who are broadly acceptable, who do not represent or have ties to militias,” he said.

The next day, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari fired back, saying the formation of the government is strictly an Iraqi affair. “When someone asks us whether we want a sectarian government the answer is ‘no, we do not want a sectarian government—not because the U.S. ambassador says so or issues a warning,” he told a news conference. “We do not need anybody to remind us, thank you.”

The wild card in this latest flare-up is al-Sadr, who fought two insurrections with the Americans in 2004. He lost both military battles, but emerged each time politically stronger than before. The areas around Kut, Karbalah and Najaf to the south of Baghdad have seen hit-and-run attacks on American forces, the most recent on Monday resulting in the destruction of a Humvee and the death of an American soldier. Mahdi Army forces loyal to Sadr are widely blamed for these attacks.

If too much pressure is put on the Shi’ites to concede posts to Sunnis, al-Sadr’s followers may not tolerate it and could turn on the Americans again. Today al-Sadr vowed revenge for the attack and threatened to take matters into his own hands unless the Iraqi government does something. In Sadr City, thousands of Sadr supporters took to the streets waving AK-47s and shouting ant-American slogans. In Kut, another Sadr stronghold, about 3,000 people marched in the streets, burning American and Israeli flags and shouting anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans.