On June 13, suspected anti-Shiite Sunni attackers once again bombed the al-Askari shrine mosque in the city of Samarra, just north of Baghdad. This time, however, the two blasts leveled the two minarets, which were the only parts of the ruined shrine left standing after the holy site was first bombed on February 22, 2006 (IRNA, June 14). The al-Askari shrine holds sacred significance to Shiite Muslims, as it is where the tenth and the eleventh imams of Twelver Shi’ism are believed to be buried, along with the mother and aunt of the twelfth imam, al-Mahdi (also known as the “Hidden Imam”), who is prophesized to return at the end of time to bring justice back to the world. Most importantly, this second attack was a strike at the heart of Shi’ism and its millenarian sect of the twelve imams. In another sense, the blast was also meant to further inflame sectarian tensions in Iraq at a crucial historical juncture in the formation of the Iraqi government and the stabilization of Iraqi society.
The reaction to the second set of explosions, however, has been a far cry from the sectarian violence that followed the first blast in 2006, which unleashed a surge in Sunni-Shiite attacks. Aside from sporadic attacks on Sunni mosques following the most recent Samarra incident, the current situation in the country remains oddly calm in the face of a possible increase of sectarian bloodshed. Why has the latest attack not given way to further impetus of sectarian conflict, and what are the political implications of this second attack?
The relative calm after the second attack could indicate that a major change in the landscape of both Shiite and Sunni politics has occurred since February 2006. For one thing, Sunni Iraqis, especially the tribal and urban Sunni population of Samarra, who make up the majority of the city and also worship at the al-Askari shrine mosque, are increasingly viewing the Salafi movement as a major threat to the national unity of Iraq. The nationalist fervor of Sunni Iraqis, in the western and central provinces of Iraq, is triggering an increase in dissatisfaction with the Salafi Islamists, who aim to push Iraq closer to all-out sectarian civil war.
Second, Moqtada al-Sadr’s recent move to control and centralize his Mahdi Army appears to be working, and his immediate call for restraint after the second attack indicates the extent to which he has successfully gained control over his militia since his reappearance in May—or perhaps earlier this spring. Although the immediate reaction by the Sadrists to the second bombing was a mass demonstration, al-Sadr was quick to order his followers to restrain themselves from attacking any Sunni mosques (IRNA, June 14). In a manner similar to his reaction after the first attack in 2006, al-Sadr even proposed to have his militia protect Sunni mosques against any attacks by rogue Shiite groups (al-Nahrain TV, June 14). This move was consistent with al-Sadr’s earlier efforts to form a Sunni-Shiite alliance, which he aims to exploit for gaining more political strength in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq against his main Shiite rival, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. His move to appeal even to secular nationalists, such as the former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who met al-Sadr in Najaf in April, should indicate al-Sadr’s strategic shift to broadening his political influence in an increasingly fractured Iraqi political scene (al-Watan, April 22).
If these developments are true, there could be a bolstering of Shiite-Sunni Iraqi nationalism, with distinct anti-Salafi and anti-occupation tendencies. This could highlight a new development under the reign of the Nuri al-Maliki government, leading Iraqi society away from sectarian conflict, but at the same time move the country toward a new political reality with strong anti-occupation currents. In this sense, the second attack on Samarra entails potentially problematic consequences. First and foremost, the sectarian attack appears to further strengthen the status of al-Sadr as a major political figure, who now maintains greater control over his militia, despite the potential expansion of splinter groups within his Sadrist movement. The bolstering of al-Sadr as a result of the second Samarra attack, in return, could mean a decrease in the authority of the hawza orthodoxy in Najaf. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s deteriorating influence since the February 2006 attack could lead to a new phase in the decline of the Najaf orthodoxy. The grand ayatollah may see a further decay in his influence in place of al-Sadr’s apparent surge as a nationalist leader with the aim of uniting Iraq with the support of Sunni Iraqis.
Al-Sadr is filling a power vacuum that may now extend beyond the Shiite religious community. One of the main implications of the second attack has been the rise in the popular belief that U.S. troops and the Iraqi government’s police forces, viewed as U.S. puppets, were behind the bombing (Baztab, June 13). The Iraqi police forces in Samarra (along with one of the guardians of the shrine in the second bombing) are believed to be responsible for both of the bombings (Baztab, February 22). The obvious repercussion of such widespread belief among many Iraqis includes the notion that the ultimate source of insecurity and chaos in Iraq is the United States, and that the only way to bring stability to Iraq is to mobilize a national oppositional force against the U.S. occupation. With an anti-occupation credential, al-Sadr could attempt to lead such an oppositional movement.
For the most part, al-Sadr is too clever to directly confront U.S. troops, as he learned in August 2004 when he paid dearly after his militia was nearly destroyed by U.S.-led forces. Al-Sadr will likely focus his main attack on the Iraqi government, citing it as the main cause of insecurity in the country in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing. It is interesting to note that in the days after the second attack, the Sadrist political bloc in the Iraqi government suspended their participation in parliament, demanding that the government provide more security and rebuild Sunni and Shiite mosques (BBC, June 15). The move was obviously an anti-government one and intended to show the extent of the government’s incompetence. Yet, at the same time, they could take the mantel of authority in case the Iraqi state continues to fail to provide its citizens the basic needs of security and stability.
This anti-government strategy of al-Sadr poses further problems. Baghdad is still too fragile, and any internal challenge by a major political group against the government can either destabilize the unity government or, ironic to al-Sadr’s objective, intensify the deep-seated tensions between Sunni, Kurdish and Shiite factions. A direct challenge by al-Sadr could be devastating to the stability of Iraq’s fledging democracy, as the al-Maliki government attempts to overcome disputes over constitutional amendments, especially over critical issues such as the distribution of oil and de-Bathification.
Even more problematic is the role of the Sunni Arabs in this political process. If they also join the Sadrists in forming a wide-ranging oppositional movement against the Iraqi government, Baghdad could face a bleak future with the unleashing of new forms of violence between U.S.-Iraqi forces and competing Shiite and Sunni groups.