The situation in Iraq continues to be dire after yesterdays’s attack on the sacred Shi’ite Askariya shrine in the city of Samarra. The destruction of this holy Iraqi site has set off a wave of violence which some are seeing as a prelude to all-out civil war between Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shi’ites.
Fortunately, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most respected leader of Iraqi Shi’ites is calling for peaceful protests and speaking out against recriminations against Iraq’s Sunni minority. Ayatollah Sistani’s word holds much weight with Iraqi Shi’ites, and hopefully he can help in calming the situation.
Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq has long been trying to drive a wedge between Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites and spark a civil war. It is quite possible that he is responsible for this attack.
At the same time, I have a feeling that there may be more going on here than first appears. What follows is pure speculation:
Al-Zarqawi has long been trying to forment civil war between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites in Iraq. That has been one of the cornerstones of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s strategy for Iraq from the very beginning of the post-Saddam era. It’s the classic strategy of divide and conquer. That being said, why wait until now? There have been plenty of opportunities for al-Qaeda to attack Shi’ite shrines, and indeed there have been bombings in sacred Shi’ite cities like Najaf before. The timing of this event seems just a little suspect, although there’s reason to believe that al-Zarqawi may have correctly deducted that an attack like this would divide the Iraqi Shi’ites and prevent Iraq from forming a government.
Who else would have motive to do such a thing? Moqtada al-Sadr has been throwing his weight around recently, working to ensure that the ineffective Ibrahim al-Jafaari retains his seat as Prime Minister. Al-Sadr has a personal reason for wanting Iraqi Sunnis to be slaughtered – Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-run government was responsible for the murder of his father, Muhammad Sadiq Sadr. Young Moqtada would be just another petty thug if he hadn’t inherited his father’s name, his father’s network of Shi’a religious charities, and the support of the Iranian government. Despite the fact that Ayatollah Sistani is himself an ethnic Persian who studied in the Iranian Shi’a holy city of Qom with none other than Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranians do not trust Sistani. Al-Sadr is ethnically Arab, but is widely regarded to be a stooge of the Iranian government. In April 2004, al-Sadr began a violent revolt in the Iraqi south with his Mahdi Army. Ayatollah Sistani talked al-Sadr down, and the Mahdi Army was pushed out of many Iraqi cities by angry Shi’ites who saw them as Iranian-backed thugs.
Now, al-Sadr has been calling for violence against Iraqi Sunnis and once again, his Mahdi Army is poised to cause trouble. Meanwhile, the Iranian government has predictably accused the US and Israel of being responsible for the bombing. Iran’s interests are served by keeping Iraq weak and ensuring that US forces can’t use Iraq as a base of operations in the region. It is entirely possible that Iranian agents would be able to pull off an attack like this, and the timing comes right on the heels of a major Shi’a split between al-Sadr’s radical faction and moderate Shi’a politicians.
Is it possible that Iran is responsible for the bombings? Yes, but the al-Qaeda connection is more likely. However, what is most crucial is that the center of Iraqi politics pulls together. The only people who benefit from civil war in Iraq are the enemies of Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani’s call for calm and non-violence should be heeded by all Iraqi Shi’ites.
This was more than just an attack against a shrine, this was an attack against all of Islam and all of Iraq. The perpetrators of this barbarous action did so in the hopes that it would tear Iraq apart and ignite a civil war. The enemies of Iraq want to see that country shattered. The people of Iraq must stand together, Sunni, Shi’ite, and others in repudiation of terrorism, or Sunnis and Shi’ites alike will find themselves dying in yet another pointless and devastating conflict. Iraq has had decades of war and deprivation. The last thing it needs is to continue that bloody cycle once again.