Karbala and the surge of Iraq attacks

Suicide attacks on Shiite pilgrims. Mass murders of police. It's not 2006 in Iraq anymore, but sometimes it feels like it.

The suicide attacks against Iraqi police this week were ominous enough. But today's twin suicide bombings in the shrine city of Karbala, as throngs of Shiite pilgrims gathered to commemorate Imam Hussein, are a reminder that there's still plenty of sectarian hatred in Iraq and that the business of national reconciliation has only just begun.

About 50 people were killed in today's attack, probably by the supporters of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Suicide attacks on police yesterday and today in Baquba, 50 miles north of Baghdad, claimed about ten lives. On Tuesday in Tikrit, hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, over 60 people were killed in a suicide attack on a police recruiting station.

Massive suicide attacks on Shiite pilgrims and places of worship have been a fact of life in Iraq from practically the moment in March 2003 when Saddam's statue was pulled down in Firdos Square in Baghdad. The following August, two huge car bombs outside the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf murdered 83 people, among them Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the country's two large Shiite political parties.

In the years after, the steady tattoo of Sunni attacks on Shiites helped tip Iraq into civil war (though they weren't the only reason; Shiites participated in their fair share of score settling against Sunnis in the wake of Saddam's fall). In 2006, when a bomb destroyed the Askariya Shrine in Samarra (the third holiest site to Shiites in Iraq after the shrines of Ali and Hussein), Iraq's bloodletting hit new heights of indiscriminate savagery, with reprisal killings and torture commonplace on both sides of the sectarian divide.

Could today's attack have that kind of impact? Probably not by itself. As recently as July of 2009, five Shiite mosques were simultaneously bombed in Baghdad, claimed 29 lives, and it didn't prompt major reprisals.

Today, Iraq has a fully sovereign government, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a Shiite, and the party of the assassinated Ayatollah Hakim (since renamed the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) has a major voice in government. Militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militiamen committed many of the atrocities on Sunnis during the worst of Iraq's fighting, has muted his rhetoric. Last week, in his first major speech since returning home from religious schooling in Qom, Iran he denounced sectarian violence and is giving signs that he wants to focus on a political route to power, at least for now.

Still, the symbolic power of the time and place of this bombing can't be ignored. Millions of Shiite pilgrims are descending on Karbala for Arbain, the culmination of a 40-day mourning cycle for Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, whose death along with a ragged band of followers on the plain outside of Karbala at the hands of an army of the Sunni Caliph Yazid in 680 A.D. marks the definitive split of Islam into its two great sects. Hundreds of thousands are making the trip on foot, and there have been scattered attacks on pilgrims making their way to Karbala in recent days.

The pilgrimage was banned under Saddam Hussein, who feared its potential as a political rallying point for Iraq's majority Shiites, who were very much second-class citizens during his rule. Chauvinists like Al Qaeda in Iraq, who view Shiites as traitors to the one true faith, hate the pilgrimage and the deviation from their own religious practices it represents.

Inevitably, we'll be seeing musings about US troops, supposed to mostly be out of Iraq by the end of this year, extending their stays as a result of these attacks. That decision would require approval of Maliki and the rest of the Iraqi government, and extending what many Iraqis still view as a US occupation could prove political poison. It's also worth remembering that these types of attacks have been happening all along during nearly 8 years of war. When US troops had full security control; after the first elected government came to power; during the US troop surge of 2007-2008; and since.

The surge, while it effectively tamped down violence, thanks to a new willingness of US forces to pay Sunni fighters to join organized militias targeting Al Qaeda fighters, was ultimately intended to create space for sectarian reconciliation. While only a small minority of Iraq's Sunnis are willing to engage in violence, the willingness of a larger percentage to look the other way and not report suspicious activity helps enable those minorities.

If the horrific attacks of the past few days become more of a trend, that will probably be evidence that more Sunnis are feeling aggrieved and looking the other way when someone's assembling a car-bomb in a neighboring home. It's worth remembering that Mr. Maliki, who is also acting Interior and Defense minister, is still deeply distrusted by many Iraqi Sunnis. Ayad Allawi, was the Sunni preference for prime minister after Iraq's parliamentary elections last March. His Iraqiya list won the largest share of the vote, and the nine-months of wrangling that ended with Maliki holding on to the premiership left a bitter taste in many Iraqis mouths.

Last year, Iraqi forces killed or captured about a dozen men described as senior Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders, but the group has proven resilient. It's been four years since a US air strike claimed the life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the principal leader of Al Qaeda aligned militants in Iraq in the early years of the war.

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