Sceptical After Second Shrine Attack

BAGHDAD — The second bombing of the Shiite shrine of al-Askari in Samarra, Iraq, last week brought reprisal attacks, but it also brought solidarity against the occupiers.

The golden shrine, located in downtown Samarra which is 125 km north of Baghdad, was first bombed on Feb. 22, 2006. The attack, which nearly totally destroyed the main dome, sparked massive violence. Over 1,300 people were killed in revenge attacks in the few tumultuous days that followed the bombing, and hundreds of thousands were displaced.

The belief among Shia Muslims is that the saviour Mahdi will come back to life from within the shrine, where two of their holy imams are buried. The Iraqi cities of Najaf, Kerbala and Baghdad also have Shia shrines with golden domes where Imams, descendents of the prophet, are buried.

The Jun. 13 bombing that targetted the shrine’s minarets were despite heavy Iraqi security presence and the U.S. military continuing to impose a curfew on the city of Samarra.

The bombing last year was widely believed by Shiite to have been carried out by Sunni extremist groups, like al-Qaeda, who maintain a goal of stoking sectarian strife in Iraq.

However, the repercussions of the second bombing of the shrine have thus far been limited to a few attacks on Sunni mosques in Basra and Baghdad.

“We now realise the plot more than we did before,” Mustafa Hussain from the predominately Shia area of Sadr City in Baghdad told IPS, “I am not sure who is doing this and I do not have the habit of speculating, but now I, and most Iraqis, are sure it is just a conspiracy to divide Iraqis into Shiite and Sunnis. All this was planned and paid for by people outside our country and community.”

After the bombing, the Iraqi government immediately imposed curfew across Baghdad and several other Iraqi cities, in addition to dispatching large numbers of Iraqi troops to Samarra.

Nevertheless, many Iraqis believe the bombing was not carried out by al-Qaeda.

“They are dreaming of evicting the people of Samarra in order to deepen the wound in the Iraqi flesh,” 35-year-old Yassir al-Samarrai’i, a local television reporter from Samarra told IPS in Baghdad, “Their problem is that Iraqis are still reluctant to engage in full scale civil war despite all the dirty business the occupiers have conducted to ignite it by these shrine explosions.”

The Mehdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr guarded the area of Khadamiyah in Baghdad, which is the site of another shrine. In several instances, Shia militiamen confronted U.S. military personnel in the area, but there was little fighting.

That the Samarra shrine was bombed yet again displayed the Iraqi government’s impotence in defending important locations. The Iraqi police responsible for shrine security were detained for questioning in order to ascertain why the bombing occurred.

“I am a Shiite, but I know for sure that Sunnis have the same respect we have for holy shrines and they would never do anything to humiliate their sacred status,” 29-year-old Ruqaya Salih told IPS in Baghdad, “Americans must know that there are Iraqis who realise that they are planning to divide the community.”

Al-Sadr, who has a bloc of 30 members of parliament, instructed them to withdraw from the government in order to protest the bombing last week. The MP’s pulled out and announced they would remain out of the government until it takes “realistic steps” to rebuild the shrine.

Very little reconstruction had been carried out since last years bombing of the shrine, a fact that has angered both the Shia and Sunni communities.

In stark contrast to the bombing of the shrine last year, IPS found many instances of solidarity between the two sects.

“They attacked ten mosques in Basra including the one that has the grave of Talha Bin Obaidillah, Mohammad’s companion,” Sheik Abdul-Wahab Hassan in Baghdad told IPS, “Sunnis will not fall for such acts, knowing the fact that their Shiite brothers would not commit such crimes except those Shiite who collaborate with the occupying forces and Iran.”

Many residents from Samarra who IPS spoke with in Baghdad blamed the occupation forces for allowing the bombing to happen.

“We keep blaming the occupying forces and their Iraqi allies in the government for all that because it is their responsibility to provide peace and order,” a member of municipal council of Samarra, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS, “This cannot go on for long and we can feel Iraqis are becoming more inclined to violence against U.S. forces each time things go wrong against sacred places in the country.”

(*Ali, our correspondent in Baghdad, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)