February 23, 2006

Holding our fire.

On calling it a civil war, that is. The last 24 hours have been rife with scattered violence, but the militias are not waging an all-out ethnic war - yet.

Spokesmen of the Islamic Party and Muslim Scholars claim more than 120 mosques have been blown up, set ablaze or came under small arms and RPG fire.

There's lots of info on the massive, yet not quite concerted, bloodshed and destruction as enraged Shiites (for the most part) go on a violent tear. Also, the Sunnis have suspended their cooperation in establishing a unified government. To provide perspective, however, Bill Roggio at The Fourth Rail lists a number of really bad things that haven't happened yet. Is any degree of optimism, however guarded, justified at this point?

Moktada Al-Sadr has been vilified by the American media due to his outspoken hatred for the U.S. presence, but is he a restraining force in the Shiite impulse for retribution against the Sunnis? It seems that (a) he is to some extent, and (b) he is extremely powerful among the Shiite proles.


The Askariya Shrine, or Golden Mosque,
holds the tombs of two revered 9th-century imams of the Shiite branch of Islam, including Hassan al-Askari, father of the "hidden imam," al-Mahdi. Many Shiites believe that Mahdi is still alive and that his reemergence one day will signal the beginning of the end of the world.

Shiites consider the mosque in Samarra to be a tangible link with the hidden imam, and Sadr's tightly disciplined militia is called the Mahdi Army, reflecting its fealty to the revered figure.

Sadr is right at the center of this. Given the specific significance of the Golden Mosque, its destruction would appear to have been a pointed effort to instigate Sadr's faction. Moreover, the Mahdi Army is no doubt one of the primary militias Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani was putting on alert when he issued a statement that "if [the Iraqi national government's] security institutions are unable to provide the necessary security [for Shiite mosques], the faithful are able to do that by the will and blessings of God." The Sunni government of Samarra had claimed responsibility for guarding the Golden Mosque, and prevented Shiites from guarding the mosque, before it was blown up.

The Mahdi Army is large, lethal, and highly obedient to Sadr. Sadr, and Sistani above him, have the power, more than anyone else, to dictate whether Shiite rage can be quelled, snowballs into a civil war, or turns even more strongly against the Americans. Although they may be holding back some of the worst anti-Sunni violence for the moment, that's not necessarily good tidings for the U.S. plan in Iraq.

A final quote from the WaPo:

In Sadr City, representatives of Sadr called for restraint and sought to deflect blame from Iraq's Sunnis. Followers came running late Wednesday when a Sadr preacher took up a bullhorn outside Sadr's offices to give the direction that the armed, angry crowds were waiting for. The mosque attack was the work of "occupiers," or Americans, "and Zionists," said the cleric, Abdul Zara Saidy. In Iran, Shiite leaders echoed the accusation.

Sunnis were guarding the mosque when other Sunnis went in and blew it up. But Sadr is holding his fire for the Americans.


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