Samarra Shrine Attack

I have to echo Steve Gilliard’s reaction to the news that some insurgent group blew up one of the holiest Shi’ite shrines in Iraq. His reaction was “This is bad” and “Holy shit.” It is not the deepest, or most analytical piece I have ever seen, but it is a good summation, especially as new news comes into play.

The Daily Star of Lebanon is reporting that Shi’ite crowds have attacked at least 90 Sunni mosques.

In Baghdadalone more than 50 moaques were attacked, three of which were destroyed with explosives, The Iraqi Islamic Party said. mobs killed three clerics and three worshippers in the assaults on 27 Sunni mosques.

Crowds machine-gunned numerous religious sanctuaries and torched at least one, the officer added.

Elsewhere, Shiites took over more than 40 Sunni mosques, hoisting banners with new names over the sites.

In the Shiite south, a crowd stormed the Basra offices of the Islamic Party, killing two people and wounding 14 others, police said.

Grand Ayatollah Sistani silently appealed for relative peace and quiet, but for the first time that I can remember, he has been effectively ignored. At the same time the Sadrist militia, the Mahdi Army, is back out on the streets, and the Badr Brigades and other non-Sadrist, but also Shi’ite militias are rumbling that they do not trust the Iraqi government to provide basic security. This attack will continue the disintegration of the moral authority of the central government and its claims to have a legitimate monopoly on violence. Up to this point, most of its effective and quasi-effective units were reflagged Kurdish peshmerga and Shi’ite Badr Brigade militia units, but this trend is now at risk.

Beyond the probable emboldening of Shi’ite militia units, which is contrary to one of the major demands of the Sunni population, this attack, and the reaction will continue to marginalize any chance of significant Sunni Arab participation in the political process. The Washington Post reports:

In Baghdad, Shiite militia fighters converged upon at least one Sunni Arab mosque and the headquarters of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party, witnesses said. Gunfire broke out at both sites, sending families in the neighborhood diving to the floors of their homes to escape bullets. U.S. military helicopters backed Iraqi security forces as they tried to get the Shiite militia fighters there to withdraw.

Other press reports indicate several other Sunni political offices were attacked in the south. As Swopa notes;

They [Al-Quaida in Iraq] appear to have figured that out, and realized that they can accomplish the same goal (keeping Iraqi Sunnis out of nonviolent politics) by pushing the Shiites further against the wall. And so the most hard-line groups on both sides keep becoming more dominant, just as they have steadily for the past three years.

Politics work only when there is some degree of trust that allows for deals to be made. If one side does not believe that the other is credible and there are no other enforcement mechanisms in place, then participation is pointless time wasting. Right now the Shi’ite parties have no reason or political ability to even think about includind any of the Sunni Arab parties in the government, thereby contributing towards the continued spiral of chaos — Sunni Arabs are excluded, therefore they gain no benefits of governance, therefore they continue to fight, while Shi’ites have the benefits of governance, but are under constant stress and no one can afford to take the risk of engaging with publicly seen to be non-credible actors to get out of this cycle. Rinse, repeat, and continue until exhaustion sets in.

This attack is not good news because of the location of the shrine. If the attack had taken place in Karbala or Najaf, areas where the primary security responsibility is local, it would not be as damaging to the ability of the US to credibly claim that it is a legitimate provider of security. However Samarra is a city in the central part of the country and security is provided by US troops. The US is in the process of a third attempt of handing security off to Iraqi police, after the first two attempts failed miserably but the security responsibility is still the US Army’s. An attack of this sort illustrates how poor security is in the central part of the country.

There is a chance that there will be a positive upside to this attack in that there will be moral dismomemtum to the symbolic attack against the Al-Quaeda in Iraq group and fellow travelers, which then would lead to unify the rest of the country, including the home grown insurgents, in disgust and positive nationalistic feelings of unity. Therefore creating common ground and future crediblity and trust which would enhance the positive probalities of the political process. However, I find this unlikely given the immediate response by the Shi’ite communities. Everyone feels that they are under pressure, under seige and over stressed. That is not a good environment for making deals.

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