Fallout From the Mosque Blast

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki(R) speaks and inspect the destroyed holy Shiite shrine of Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-Askarri in Samarra, Iraq, June 13, 2007.

The latest attack on Samarra's Golden Shrine exposes the limitations of the massive security crackdown under way in Iraq. With tens of thousands of U.S. troops devoted to quelling the sectarian violence in and around Baghdad, other cities and regions have become more vulnerable to attack by militant groups like al-Qaeda. The Iraqi forces that are meant to pick up the slack are woefully inadequate, allowing the militants to slip past security cordons and pick their targets almost at will.

The purpose of the new attack is not hard to divine: Shi'ite militias have been lying low since the start of the U.S.-led military surge earlier this year, and al-Qaeda has been trying to provoke them back into the fight. There have been several attacks on Shi'ite religious sites, but most have failed.

It's not clear what security lapses allowed the attack in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, but they must have been especially egregious. The shrine, one of the holiest in Shi'ite Islam, was said to have been under extraordinary protection after the Feb 22, 2006, explosion that destroyed its golden dome. That attack, blamed on al-Qaeda, set off a wave of retaliatory attacks from outraged Shi'ites and plunged Iraq into sectarian war—the one the current American surge is meant to subdue.

The latest attack occurred around 9 am on Wednesday and destroyed the shrine's two minarets. Early reports said the towers were struck by mortars or rockets, but it now seem more likely they were brought down by explosives placed within or close to them.

The Iraqi government has announced it is sending a National Police force to Samarra to root out the militants responsible for the bombing. It has also clamped an indefinite curfew on the city. But the greater concern is over the fallout from the bombing in other parts of the country, especially the capital, which also will be under indefinite curfew starting at 3 pm. Shortly before the curfew went into effect, explosions shook the Eastern Baghdad neighbourhood of Zaiyouna, and residents reported seeing a large cloud of smoke rising from a Sunni mosque in the area. The immediate assumption was that it was a retaliation for the Samarra attack.

The attack sent a chill through Baghdad, where memories of the aftermath of last year's bombing are still fresh. Traffic in the streets quickly thinned as people rushed home, anticipating a repeat of the widespread violence. Then, thousands of Shi'ite militias, most of them loyal to the Mahdi Army of firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, fanned out across Baghdad in a spasm of killing and burning that lasted for several weeks. Al-Sadr's first reaction to the latest attack was to call for three days of mourning and peaceful demonstrations.

The big difference between then and now is the massively increased American presence in the Iraqi capital since February. That has helped slow, if not completely stop, the sectarian killings. But if Shi'ite militias respond to the latest provocation, it would greatly complicate the U.S. military's task. For one thing, the loyalties of the largely Shi'ite Iraqi forces will be put to the test: in previous such situations, many police and Iraqi soldiers have joined with the militias to kill Sunnis. For another, more Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence would leave American soldiers in the impossible position of telling good guys from bad guys.