The bombing of Iraq’s Askariya mosque, Feb. 22, shattered a 1,200-year-old shrine especially revered by Shiites. Its huge golden dome, now wrecked, dominated the landscape of Samarra, a predominantly Sunni city. Built 100 years ago, it covered the ancient tombs of the 10th and 11th Imams, considered holy descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Another dome marks the spot where the 12th and last Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, is believed to have vanished in 878. Much like the Jewish Messiah, believers say Mahdi will return to restore justice to the world.
The bombing touched off demonstrations but also waves of violence. Armed groups targeted scores of Sunni and Shiite mosques. Ordinary people were killed simply because they were Shiite or Sunni. In one report, dozens were found executed, their hands bound, on the outskirts of Baghdad. In Diyala province, gunmen set up a phony checkpoint, pulled 47 largely Shiite factory workers off a bus and killed them.
Estimates of the dead range from hundreds to over 1,000. While the violence has abated amidst calls for unity, suicide bombings and other attacks continue to add to the deaths.
Iraqis widely cited the U.S. occupation as the underlying cause of the crisis, and at the same time said it reflected struggles among contending Iraqi and regional political forces.
In a recent Cairo meeting with leaders of the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization, Iraqi Communist Party leader and former culture minister Mufid al-Jazairy said Saddam Hussein had encouraged differences between religious and ethnic groups that came to the fore after the U.S. toppled Hussein. It created a “new Iraq” dominated by religious sectarianism and racist strife instead of political vision. This enabled the U.S. to play on ethnic conflicts for its own purposes, al-Jazairy said.
A well-known Iraqi newspaper, Azzaman, editorialized, “The occupation may not directly be responsible for the current divisions in the society but it has encouraged them and paved the way for them to take roots that have become almost impossible to wipe out.” The editorial continued, “There are factions who seem to be pleased to see the country in such turmoil. They think immersion in sectarian schemes … and the shedding of innocent blood will serve their vicious intentions.”
Noting that “filling Iraqi streets with tanks, armored personnel carriers and troops will not solve the problem,” the paper called for “a broad national government that reinforces national unity, dissolves armed militias, puts an end to kidnapping and killing and reinstates law and order.”
Many Iraqis blame the Askariya bombing on extreme Islamic fundamentalists known as takfiris, who consider Shiites to be heretics. Many also believe such groups are collaborating with Baathists whose aim is to stoke sectarian conflict even to the brink of civil war, to force their way into power. The attack came as negotiations to form a permanent government had “reached a critical stage, so time to blow things up,” Iraqi Communist Party spokesperson Salam Ali commented sharply.
Then, many Iraqis say, the incident was exploited by various Shiite religious groups for their own narrow agendas.
Ali noted, in a Feb. 26 phone interview, that until the bombing the Supreme Council for an Islamic Republic in Iraq (SCIRI), a major party in the Shiite Islamic alliance, was under tremendous pressure from all other political blocs to retreat from its sectarian positions on the new government. SCIRI has also been on the defensive over torture and murders committed by its paramilitary forces operating under government cover.
The Askariya bombing “helped take the heat off,” and was used to stir up emotions among the group’s supporters and the general public, Ali said.
SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim in turn said that U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, by pushing for a bigger Sunni role in the new government, “gave a green light to terrorist groups, and he therefore bears a part of the responsibility.”
Fundamentalist Moqtada al Sadr further inflamed the situation by spurring attacks on Sunni mosques and individuals, many Iraqis charge.
Ali expects those who planned the Askariya bombing will try again on a similar scale.
Speaking of whoever was behind the blast and its violent aftermath, he said, “Whether these groups are penetrated by U.S. intelligence we don’t know.” But these events, he and others noted, didn’t fit the Bush administration’s intense desire to show a fig leaf of progress and withdraw some troops before the fall U.S. elections. Some see the blast benefiting Iran’s reactionary regime. “Iraq is the battlefield in which Iranian and U.S. interests are currently being played out,” said a column in the Egyptian Al Ahram.
One of the major issues when Iraqis discuss withdrawal of U.S. troops, Ali said, is their fears about security. It is essential to provide an alternative, one that will not leave Iraq in the hands of the Bush administration, he said. “We feel the United Nations has to play a decisive role. Otherwise, you allow the U.S. to bring in NATO or others under the guise of international help.”
“Regardless of our reservations regarding the UN, it’s the only international body at the moment and continues to be a forum for struggle.”