The big news from Iraq today, which everyone is talking about, is the new attack at the al-Askari mosque in Samarra. Last year, the destruction of the Golden Dome there was a major catalyst for throwing Iraq into open sectarian civil war. This time, bombers have toppled the mosque's minarets although there were no casualties. Already, there are reports of a massive security push as well as of retatiatory attacks on Sunni mosques.
The attack on the mosque last year was widely blamed on Al Qaeda, even though no-one ever presented evidence for that accusation and Al Qaeda has ever claimed responsibility for the attack. This attack too is being blamed on Al Qaeda by the Iraqi government, US military and US administration spokespeople - however, there are reports that many of the Shiite guards at the mosque have been arrested and that the bombing could be an "inside job". After last year's bombing, the mosque was guarded by about 60 Federal Protection Service forces and 25 local Iraqi police who kept watch on the perimeter, according to Samarra city officials.
That has led some to speculate that Al Qaeda and some Shiite group may have co-operated to sow dissent and sabotage the success of "the surge". That's rather less likely than that a Shiite group acting alone attacked its own holiest mosque to further drive sectarian feuding or that this might be a case of one Shiite faction carrying out an attack it could later blame on another rival Shiite faction (expect someone to blame Sadr any moment now). Finally, it's minutely possible that this is a US black ops attack designed to keep Iraq in enough turmoil that the populace will want the occupation to continue long enough for the US to set up its permanent "South Korea Style" presence.
Sadr's political bloc has already pulled its members out of paliament in a boycott until the government takes ``realistic'' steps to rebuild the Askariya shrine, while Sadr himself has criticized security forces ineptness and blamed occupation forces for the attack at the same time as calling for peaceful protests. Although the Maliki and Bush administrations had promised last year to rebuild the shrine at Samarra, no work had been done. The US military and Iraq's security forces have instituted a surge of the surge in Samarra and Baghdad - and in particular blockaded all exits from Sadr City into central Baghdad.
First signs are that retaliatory violence is more constrained this time around, no doubt partly because there are more questions about responsibility. On that, I'm with Marc at Abu Aardvark:
I suspect (but can't prove right now) that the attack is tied to the various efforts to forge a cross-sectarian opposition front perhaps getting closer to fruition behind the scenes. The Sadrists, the Allawi people, some of the Sunni insurgent groups, Sunni political leaders - they've all been floating publicly and talking privately (I'm told) about various possibilities for an anti-Maliki and anti-US front. I had thought that such talks were fading, with the truce between the Islamic Army of Iraq and al-Qaeda in Iraq, and with the reports of renewed ethnic cleansing in Sadrist areas, but it's at least plausible that the shrine was targetted in order to kill the prospects for such a coalition. Not that such a coalition has seemed very likely, but perhaps enough was happening behind the scenes to make it worth attacking for the sectarians and the al-Qaeda types.One thing is for sure - you can kiss goodbye to any chance of there being viable progress to report about the surge in September. Not that there was going to be progress anyway - but now the pro-occupation folks have a convenient scapegoat to explain away that failure and justify pleading for just a bit more time.