The bombing of the shrine of Imams Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-Askari in Samarra, Iraq, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, has sent crowds into the streets in protest and led to reprisal attacks on dozens of Sunni mosques. So is Iraq on the verge of the long-expected sectarian conflict that will tear the country apart? Don’t count on it.
The attack was most probably perpetrated by al Qaeda, which has been trying to foment civil strife in Iraq for some time, and declared open war on the Shiites last year. They have mounted numerous provocative attacks on Shia and Kurdish targets, to no noticeable effect. This strike was much more audacious; the (previously) golden-domed shrine is an ancient and revered structure, and the tombs within are holy both to Shiites and Sunnis, though more so to the former. The initial retaliatory attacks on Sunni mosques must have pleased Zarqawi; if taking down this site did not start the civil war, nothing would.
So the foreign fighters must have been stunned when Shiite and Sunni leaders rushed out statements saying they knew that the takfiri (i.e., those who accuse other Muslims of being infidels, a code word in this context for the foreign extremists) were behind the attack, and they would not let this act of brutality divide Iraq. In an announcement on his website Shiite leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani blamed “takfiris [who] meant to foment sedition among the Iraqi people, thus fulfilling their malicious goals.” He has called for seven days of mourning and peaceful demonstrations in response to the bombing. He added, “we urge everyone not to be dragged into committing acts that would only please the enemies, namely, the sectarian sedition which they have long attempted to push Iraq into its furnace.” Shiite radical Muqtada al-Sadr–remember him?–blamed the attack on the takfiri, Saddam loyalists, and “the occupation.” “We should not attack Sunni mosques,” he said on al Jazeera. “I ordered [his militia the] Al-Mahdi Army to protect the Shiite and Sunni shrines and to show a high sense of responsibility, something they actually did.” (Nice that they followed orders, did this surprise him?)
Sunni groups followed suit. The Association of Muslim Scholars posted a statement condemning this “suspicious criminal act that seeks to stir sedition and unrest” and the “perpetrators and masterminds of this act, who wish to harm Iraq and divide its people for the sake of their personal agendas and the interests and schemes of foreign powers in this ravaged country.” Likewise the National Dialogue Council denounced the attempt to “divide Iraq and light the flame of civil war between its sons,” and the Iraqi Islamic Party called for self restraint, even as its offices were attacked, saying that in a civil war there would be no winner.
It was also interesting to see how many groups in Iraq and elsewhere blamed the Coalition for the bombing. Shortly after the blast in Samarra, local mosques were blasting through their loudspeakers, “Death for America for bringing terrorism to Iraq!” Well at least if they are condemning us they won’t be attacking each other.
The being said it is worth noting that there is already low-level conflict among various ethnic groups in Iraq, with active militias and death-squads plying their deadly trade. But the level of violence is far from that envisioned by al Qaeda, which seems to have conducted this attack as an act of desperation. Things have not been going well for the foreign fighters lately. Their Sunni tribal supporters–without whom they cannot prosecute their insurgency–have begun turning against them. Earlier this month the Karabla tribe in al-Anbar province, an al Qaeda hotbed, announced they would take up arms against insurgents from abroad. In the al-Anbar capital of Ramadi, once a Zarqawi stronghold, open warfare has erupted between the local insurgent groups and the foreign fighters, particularly after the assassination of respected local tribal leader Sheikh Naser Abdul Karim al-Miklif. And recently eight major western Iraqi tribal chiefs met with General George Casey and Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to discuss ways to work together to stabilize the province. This is a welcome and long overdue recognition of the decisive role Sunni tribal leaders must play in resolving the insurgency.
Despite panicky headlines to the contrary, it is not in any group’s interest to wage full scale civil war in Iraq. The Shiites have power without it; the Sunnis could not win it; and the Kurds will sit it out either way and keep patiently building their homeland. So this senseless act of violence against the final resting place of two of the most respected figures of the Muslim religion only proves to the Islamic world that al Qaeda and its allies are true heretics who care nothing for the faith and are out for power by any means at their disposal. Cartoons about Mohammed pale in comparison to this atrocity. I look forward to the mass demonstrations against al Qaeda throughout the Muslim world–though somehow I doubt we’ll see many.
–James S. Robbins is author of the forthcoming Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point and an NRO Contributor.