Samarra shrine attack: less incendiary now?

Wednesday's attack on the Askariya shrine mirrored a 2006 bombing at the Shiite holy site, but this strike may not spark the same sectarian bloodshed.

Wednesday's attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra, Iraq, mirrored a strike there in February 2006 that started a cycle of revenge and was a watershed moment in the mounting Sunni-Shiite civil war.

But the latest attack on the holy site, which knocked down the revered Shiite mosque's two soaring minarets, may not see the same devastating results.

After more than a year of sectarian bloodshed, Shiite leaders have adopted a more unifying tone and the Iraqi government and US forces have reacted quickly to this strike in an effort to cool tensions.

The first attack destroyed the shrine's Golden Dome. The two assaults have much in common – including the failure of Iraqi security forces to protect a sensitive site and a calculation to stoke sectarian violence that has claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives. Saboteurs managed to get inside the shrine and plant charges in what was supposed to be a well-guarded site, raising questions about an inside job.

One Sunni mosque was set on fire Wednesday, Reuters reported. But overall, there were also signs that Iraqi leaders have learned that everyone loses amid indiscriminate bloodshed. Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr immediately called for calm – as he did in 2006. But this time it appears as if his loyalists are paying heed. "I don't believe a Sunni or a Muslim would do this,'' he said in a statement.

Tarek al-Hashimi, Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president, said the attack was a "desperate attempt to damage the unity of the Iraqi people."

The attitude of Mr. Sadr and his followers are the key to containing the fallout from this latest assault on Shiite pride. This year, Sadr has sought to refine his image from that as a spokesman of the poor urban Shiites who make up his base into a nationalist leader whose constant calls for a US withdrawal from the country resonate with at least some Sunni Arabs.

Since the spring, he has expelled some of the most notorious death-squad leaders from his movement and has met with senior Sunni politicians.

When he emerged from months of hiding in May – the US alleged he was in Iran – he delivered a sermon against the US "occupation" that was designed, aides said, to appeal to Sunnis.

"I say to the Sunnis that we are brothers, and the occupier divided us in order to make the Iraqi people weak,'' he said. "I am ready to cooperate with them at every level, I'm stretching my hand out to them."

His statements have been greeted with skepticism by Sunnis, since his supporters are still blamed for the bound and tortured corpses of Sunni Arabs that turn up on Baghdad's streets every day. Nonetheless, Sadr's rhetoric has helped to ease tensions in the wake of Wednesday's attack.

Despite this response, the US military and the Iraqi government aren't taking chances. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki almost immediately declared an indefinite curfew in Baghdad and appealed to US forces to send reinforcements to Samarra. A few hundred US soldiers are stationed around Samarra for security, though Iraqi forces are in charge of protecting the mosque.

In a joint statement, the US ambassador, Ryan Crocker, and military commander Gen. David Petraeus called the attack "a deliberate attempt by Al Qaeda to sow dissent."

The Askariya shrine holds the tombs of two Shiite imams who died 1,200 years ago. It is located near the place where many Shiites believe the 12th and final Shiite Imam was "occulted," or taken into hiding by God until a time when he'll return to earth to restore justice and defeat evil. This figure is known as the Mahdi, and Mr. Sadr is a firm believer in his return, hence the name of his Mahdi Army.

Though the site has been a place of worship for centuries, it has been rebuilt and expanded many times. The mosque, in its current configuration, dates from the early 20th century. Though not as architecturally significant as, say, St. Peter's in Rome, the symbolic importance of the site to millions of Shiites is vast.

Though it seems unlikely that the paroxysms unleashed by the last attack on the shrine will be repeated, Iraq is still highly unstable.

Sadr said he was suspending his parliamentary bloc's participation in the government until work started on rebuilding the shrine. Promises to rebuild after the first attack were not met.

There were also signs that the US military's surge of troops into Baghdad, which peaked this month, is not yet getting sustainable results.

Anecdotal evidence in Baghdad makes it appear that sectarian killings have been rising in recent weeks. That impression was supported by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon. In a quarterly report to the Security Council that his office released on Monday, Mr. Ban said that "while there was a brief lull in the level of sectarian violence early in the reporting period, it now appears that militia forces are resuming their activities, including targeted killings and kidnappings."

Prime Minister Maliki is also struggling to hold his coalition together even as he comes under pressure from US officials over making progress on sectarian reconciliation. Key to this effort is passing an oil law that ensures Sunnis a larger share of the country's oil wealth. Maliki's security forces are also under strain.

On Wednesday, Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey told Congress that of the 188,000 Iraqi police trained by the US in the 18 months before January, between 8,000 and 10,000 had been killed in action, 6,000 to 8,000 had received wounds so severe that they could no longer serve, and about 5,000 had deserted. A further 7,000, he said, are unaccounted for.

"On average, about 25 percent of the force is on leave at any given time, and they're not going on vacation," General Dempsey said. "It may sound simple, but a significant portion of this is for soldiers taking leave to physically take money home to their families in the absence of things like direct deposit and electronic banking."

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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