Two years ago today, the city of Samarra awoke to an enormous “boom,” as al-Qaeda gunmen stormed the Al Askariya Shrine and blew up it’s revered golden dome. With one barbaric act, the “Golden Mosque” was destroyed, along with its nonsectarian tradition.
Al-Qaeda perpetrated the bombing — on a universally revered Shiite mosque in a Sunni town — to stoke sectarian hatred and incite reprisals. Their twisted scheme worked; and within hours, violence spread throughout Iraq. On February 22, 2006, an already fragile Iraq burst at the seams.
Shia militias exploited the event to target Sunni mosques, and sic their death squads on Sunni innocents. Al-Qaeda, posing as defenders of Sunnis (and the faith?), retaliated with attacks on Shia groups, killing thousands of innocents with suicide bombers. Full-fledged civil war ensued.
Ill prepared, both strategically and tactically, the American military had no comprehensive plan to stem the violence. The mosque bombing, more than any other event during my time in Iraq, underscored this fact.
I was one of four Americans in the Samarra mayor’s office the night of the bombing, as city leaders, elders, and religious leaders gathered to discuss the tragic event. City leaders came prepared to reach out in cooperation, knowing full well that such an egregious offense against Islam — perpetrated by al-Qaeda criminals — could be a unifying event in all-Sunni Samarra.
Caught off guard by this approach, the American leadership in the room stubbornly continued to insist on “finding the bad guys.” Oh, the missed opportunity.
In that office, and in the months to come throughout Iraq, unconventional and asymmetrical warfare proved too much for America’s conventional “kill and capture” approach. The insurgency used human bombs and chopped off heads, while the American military continued to hunker down on large bases, deploying only for large-scale maneuvers that netted few insurgents.
The violence, and the environment that allowed it, persisted well beyond my time in Baghdad and Samarra, and by early 2007, Iraq was on the brink of total collapse. American casualties were at near-record levels, dozens of disfigured Iraqi bodies appeared on the streets of Baghdad every morning, and substantial political progress — locally and nationally — was almost nonexistent.
Two years later — recalling that time, everything from the terror on people’s faces, to the scent in the air — the lessons we learned then are lessons we must remember now, on the second anniversary of the attack.