Al-Askariya Shrine Attack Has Iraq on Brink of Civil War
Given that Muslims the world over have been driven to weeks of rioting and mass murder over some cartoons, it should not be surprising that an attack on a centuries-old mosque has driven a rage that has killed
nearly over* 100 people and is threatening to spark a full-scale civil war.
Patrick Cockburn puts it this way in the Independent: “Destruction of holiest Shia shrine brings Iraq to the brink of civil war”
Iraq took a lethal step closer to disintegration and civil war yesterday after a devastating attack on one of the country’s holiest sites. The destruction of the golden-domed Shia shrine in Samarra sparked a round of bloody sectarian retaliation in which up to 60 Sunni mosques were attacked and scores of people were killed or injured. The bomb attack has enraged the majority Shia population, who regard the shrine in the same way that Roman Catholics view St Peter’s in Rome.
In a number of respects civil war in Iraq has already begun. Many of the thousand bodies a month arriving in the morgues in Baghdad are of people killed for sectarian reasons. It is no longer safe for members of the three main communities the Sunni and Shia Arabs and the Kurds to visit each other’s parts of the country “Iraq is in a Weimar period like Germany in the 1920s which will either end with the country disintegrating or in an authoritarian government taking power,” said Ghassan Atiyyah, an Iraqi political commentator.
Aside from the fact that it is hard to conceive of an Italian civil war resulting if wayward Catholics damaged St Peter’s, it certainly could be the proverbial last straw.
AP’s Ziad Khalaf struck a similar chord: “Mosque Attack Pushes Iraq Toward Civil War.”
Insurgents posing as police destroyed the golden dome of one of Iraq’s holiest Shiite shrines Wednesday, setting off an unprecedented spasm of sectarian violence. Angry crowds thronged the streets, militiamen attacked Sunni mosques, and at least 19 people were killed. […] The violence — many of the 90 attacks on Sunni mosques were carried out by Shiite militias — seemed to push Iraq closer to all-out civil war than at any point in the three years since the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Robert Worth was a little more circumspect for the NYT: “Blast at Shiite Shrine Sets Off Sectarian Fury in Iraq”
Shiite militia members flooded the streets of Baghdad, firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at Sunni mosques while Iraqi Army soldiers who had been called out to stop the violence stood helpless nearby. By the day’s end, mobs had struck or destroyed 27 Sunni mosques in the capital, killing three imams and kidnapping a fourth, Interior Ministry officials said. In all, at least 15 people were killed in related violence across the country.
Thousands of grief-stricken people in Samarra crowded into the shrine’s courtyard after the bombing, some weeping and kissing the fallen stones, others angrily chanting, “Our blood and souls we sacrifice for you, imams!”
Iraq’s major political and religious leaders issued urgent appeals for restraint, and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari called for a three-day mourning period in a televised address. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, released an unusually strong statement in which he said, “If the government’s security forces cannot provide the necessary protection, the believers will do it.”
The bodies of three Iraqi journalists, including a well-known correspondent for Al Arabiya television, were found Thursday near Samarra, police and the Arabic network said. Al Arabiya’s Atwar Bahjat and two colleagues from the al-Wassan media company had been in the city to cover the bombing when they disappeared Wednesday night, the network said.
In Baghdad, the bodies of 23 men were found bound and shot, police said Thursday. It was not immediately clear whether the killings were linked to the shrine attack.
Sam Knight of the Times of London explains that the Al-Askariya shrine is “Not just a major cathedral.”
The attack on the al-Askariya shrine marks the first time that Iraqi sectarian violence has targeted one of the country’s central religious symbols.
The Shia Muslim shrine has existed in the middle of the ancient city of Samarra, one of the largest archaeological sites in the world, since 944, when it was built to house the tombs of two ninth century imams, direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Ali al-Hadi, the tenth imam who died in 868 and his son Hassan al-Askari who died in 874, were buried at the end of the turbulent period during which Samarra was built as the new capital of the Abbasid empire, briefly taking over from Baghdad, then the largest city in the world.
But the continued and intense religious importance of the site is connected to the 12th and final imam, the so-called “Hidden Imam” who Shias believe went into hiding in 878 under the al-Askariya shrine to prepare for his eventual return among men. According to Shia tradition, the Mahdi will reappear one day to punish the sinful and “separate truth from falsehood”. For many years, a saddled horse and soldiers would be brought to the shrine in Samarra every day to be ready for his return, a ritual that was repeated in Hilla, about 100 miles to the south, where it was also thought that Mahdi might reappear.
“It’s one of the foremost important shrines in Iraq,” said Alastair Northedge, a Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the Sorbonne in Paris who has just completed an archaeological survey of Samarra. “Najaf and Karbala are the two most important shrines in Iraq but only slightly subsidiary to them are the sites in Samarra and Baghdad. “The shrine is central for the Shia. This is not just a major cathedral, this is more than that, this is one of the holiest shrines.”
In a later story by Worth and Edward Fong, “Sectarian Fury Turns Violent in Wake of Iraq Shrine Blast,” the death toll is radically increased.
At least 95 people, some of them prominent Sunni Arab clerics, were killed in revenge in Baghdad and the surrounding areas in the chaotic 24 hours following the bombing Wednesday morning of one of Shiite Islam’s holiest shrines, in the town of Samarra, an Interior Ministry official said today. More bodies were being discovered throughout the day across Iraq.
Sunni Arab politicians broke off talks with Shiite and Kurdish leaders over the formation of a new government, saying they would not engage in discussions until those responsible for the attacks on Sunnis had been brought to justice.
In addition, at least 19 other deaths from attacks outside of the Baghdad area were reported today. At least 16 Iraqis were killed, half of them soldiers, and at least 20 people were injured when a powerful bomb exploded by an Iraqi Army patrol this morning northeast of the capital, in the volatile provincial capital of Baquba, an Interior Ministry official said.
A little over a year ago, I wrote an article for TCS arguing that civil war was unlikely. The arguments I made then still hold true.
Still, the current situation is quickly spiraling out of control and it appears that Iraqi security forces are powerless to stop it. Moreover, United States forces can not afford to intervene, as it will give the appearance–and, indeed, be objectively true–that we are taking sides.
*Update: AP reports the toll is up to 111.
Gunmen shot dead 47 civilians and left their bodies in a ditch near Baghdad Thursday as militia battles and sectarian reprisals followed the bombing of a sacred Shiite shrine. Sunni Arabs suspended their participation in talks on a new government.
At least 111 people were believed killed in two days of rage unleashed by Wednesday’s attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra, a mostly Sunni Arab city 60 miles north of Baghdad.
The hardline Sunni Clerical Association of Muslim Scholars said 168 Sunni mosques had been attacked around the country, 10 imams killed and 15 abducted since the shrine attack. The Interior Ministry said it could only confirm figures for Baghdad, where it had reports of 19 mosques attacked, one cleric killed and one abducted.