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.”

Photo: The Askariya shrine, one of the holiest Shia sites in Iraq, was severely damaged by a large explosion in Samarra, 60 miles (95km) north of Baghdad (AP/Hameed Rasheed)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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DC Loser says:

    The sectarian tension has always been there underneath the surface, simmering but waiting for an event just like this to light the fuse. I’m afraid once the lid has blown off, it will be very difficult or impossible to restore calm before a great loss of life and destruction occurs.

  2. LJD says:

    I will launch a pre-emptive reality check before all the posts about ‘Bush’s failed war’.

    First, the mark of a civilized society is recognition of the fact that criminals bombed this Mosque, not the conscious and collective decision of any one religious group. It was a bunch of criminals with a bomb (I thought it was reported as being Al Qaeda?). The willingness to engage in tit-for-tat attacks is very indicative of a society headed down the wrong path.

    Second, look at what we have here. One group was previously in power, and supported and benefitted from the brutal tacics of the previous regime. Another group is supported by the maniacal religious aspirations of a neighboring country. Yet another recipe for conflict.

    Some would tell you that things were better under Saddam. Well, I guess that depends on which end of the gun barrel you were on. We should not take any domestic troubles in Iraq to be a failure ofthe democratice experiment. These are growing pains, much like that experienced in our own Civil War. I don’t think you’ll find any one to argue for a divided America, in exchange for the enourmous amount of blood shed to form our Union.

  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    I think the better analogy than wayward Italian Catholics blowing up St. Peter’s basilica would be Lutherans (i.e. same holy book, but different views).

    I am now waiting for the Shia Muslims to begin rioting at the blasphemy in Iraq.

  4. ken says:

    None of this would have happened if Bush had not launched his war on Iraq. That is obvious.

    What is not obvious is why Bush insists on continuing his war. There is nothing to be gained by it. The longer he persists the more tragic the inevitable defeat will seem. He should just declare victory and get out. I think we would all be willing to humor those whose egos require a ‘victory’ if that is what it took to put an end to this madness.

  5. sgtfluffy says:

    How many yimes have we heard the phrase “Brink of Civil War” throughout this war? 10, 12? The culture of defeatism and death has got to go.

  6. LJD says:

    None of this would have happened if Bush had not launched his war on Iraq. That is obvious.

    Obvious to whom, your omnipotence? Even if we stayed out of Iraq, there’s no guarantee that tension between groups would not have resulted in the same outcome. What is guaranteed is that Saddam woould have continued his brutal ways, including the aqcuisition of WMD and an attack on the U.S.

    The longer he persists the more tragic the inevitable defeat will seem.

    By defeat, you refer to the elected government of Iraq? What is the alternative? Are you supposing a U.S. pullout would stop all this ‘madness’?

  7. ken says:

    LJD, it is a wonder to me that people like you even exist. You are so dumb that natural selection should have eliminated you years ago. Iraq was not going to attack the United States any more than was Mexico. That you believe Iraq was going to attack the United States puts you in the competition for the stupidest person alive award.

  8. LJD says:

    Ken, coming from you: a compliment!

    Once again I have to educate you. (Watch me work without the use of any nicknames, profanity, or other derogatories…)

    Would Iraq have attacked the U.S. in the traditional sense (i.e. paratroopers, amphibious landing, etc.)? Not very likely, as you so eloquently point out.

    Was Saddam pissed about being ousted from Kuwait by the U.S., as well as the subsequent sanctions? Absolutely. He had a score to settle.

    Did Saddam seek WMD?
    Debatable, but I believe the evidence suggests he did. Otherwise, why waste so much time and energy playing shell games with the inspectors?

    Did Saddam support terror? Absolutely and irrefutably.

    Now questions for you:

    Did we, by following pre-war diplomacy, give Saddam every opportunity to move, hide, or export his WMDs (hypothetically if easier for you to comprehend)?

    Have we concluded without doubt, that NO WMD were exported to Syria or elsewhere?

    Are YOU willing to bet your life on it?

    So based on HIS actions, and what we’ve found in Iraq after the invasion, we have every reason to believe that Saddam would have supported terrorist action including providing material to terrorists who would attack the U.S. (as he did in Israel), including supporting terrorist training camps where they would learn how to do so, including financing their journey (as he did in Israel).

    So back to the point: Civil War.

    Your perspective is that the Iraqis do not have the right to fight for their independence. That brutal oppression under Saddam, including torture and rape rooms, was preferable to settling ethnic tensions. That if we just leave Iraq now, every one there will go back to loving one another and living in peace. That’s about it right?

  9. ken says:

    LJD, if you love Iraqis so much that you are willing to spend your own money and shed your own blood for them, then go ahead. But for the rest of us Americans we know that it is none of our business. So just leave us out of your senseless fight.

    Iraq has never threatened America. But like I observed before you are indeed one of the dumbest persons alive so you would not know that.

  10. none says:

    I don’t think anyone could have predicted a civil war. You’re doin’ a heck of a job Georgie!

  11. LJD says:

    Ken, perhaps you should educate yourself beyond what papa Moore and Mama Sheehan tell you. Perhaps the perspective of an actual Iraqi living in Baghdad?

    ..and who the hell is “us” Americans. I would bet greater than 50% of “us” support YOUR whacky views.

    I suppose name-calling makes you feel better, too. O.k. you doo-doo head.

  12. ken says:

    Sorry LJD, I do not defer to an Iraqi when making my decisions on what America should or should not do.

    If you want to leave America and join those Iraqies you agree with, then go right ahead. America, love it or leave it, I’ve always said.

    For the the rest of us however, we do not need to be dragged into a war that is none of our business.

  13. Bhoe says:

    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.

    No sir, no civil war here. The 30,000 civilians who have been killed since the invasion, I am sure, would have appreciated your analysis.

  14. Herb says:


    You are wasting you time and effort trying to communicate with Ken.
    He has shown everyone on many occasions that he does not have the mental capacity to absorb reason , logic or plain old common sense. I got a laugh when he said he was an American, All I have ever seen him say is to run America into the ground in favor of terrorists, dictators, killers and every other despot in the entire world.

    Ken just don’t get it and is still whining and crying over the 2000 and 2004 election results.

    He will go absoloutly insane after the 2008 election.