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.
The bombing of the Golden Mosque brought down the dome of an ancient shrine but, in a twisted way, it also hastened a widespread rejection of al-Qaeda that ultimately led to the lowering of barriers between the U.S. and local leaders, thus providing the building blocks of our current progress in Iraq. The seeds of success are sometimes sown in the darkest moments.
The counterinsurgency strategy we are using with great success in Iraq today should have been implemented from the beginning of the war — or at least by 2006. Doing so would have saved countless American and Iraqi lives.
That said, the Samarra mosque bombing fully exposed the ugly underbelly of al-Qaeda and radical Shia militias to the Iraqi people, providing a frightening glimpse into what a fanatical post-American regime might look like. Saddam was ruthless, but al-Qaeda is soulless.
This post-bombing realization — combined with General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy and an additional 30,000 troops — created a dynamic on the ground that changed the war. The Iraqi people stood up against violent extremists, and the Americans were finally able to support them by substantively improving conditions at the street level.
This combination has proved lethal for al-Qaeda, as well as radical Shia elements, namely Moqtada Al Sadr who today extended his ceasefire for another six months, more out of weakness than strategic value — his top lieutenants and militia leaders are dead.
Over the past year, violent attacks throughout Iraq are down over 65 percent, sectarian violence is down over 90 percent, Iraqi security forces are truly taking the lead in operations, and — thank God — American casualties are near all-time lows.
These dramatic security improvements have — as intended — created an environment in which Iraqi political leaders can reconcile. The result: De-Baathification law — passed. Provincial election law — passed. Amnesty law — passed. $50 billion budget — passed. With much more in the pipeline.
More importantly, at the local level, Iraqis have banded together to protect their neighborhoods and start the process of truly rebuilding Iraq. Markets are flourishing, shops have reopened, and in former al-Qaeda strongholds, girls are going back to school.
This is the story of Iraq two years after the Samarra bombing.
2006 was the year of al-Qaeda and civil war, 2007 the year of America’s “re-liberation” of Iraq, and 2008 promises to be the year of Iraqi progress. Make no mistake about it, there will be more setbacks — some dramatic — but a continued American commitment in Iraq has incredible potential.
But don’t just take my word for it today. For the next ten days I will be back in Iraq to cover these developments firsthand. I will walk the same streets I walked as an infantry platoon leader in 2005, and will report back on National Review Online. Stay tuned.
— Captain Pete Hegseth, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006, is executive director of Vets for Freedom.