Christian Merville on the Samarra Bombing
An unstable mixture
On Tuesday, a series of attacks targeting in succession a minibus, truck drivers, a restaurant, and police. Yesterday, a bombing of one of the four most important Shi’ite sanctuaries. In Iraq, violence on the ground always accompanies political negotiations, whether they concern elections, alliance-building or even, as has been the case for the last few days, putting together a government team following the December 15 popular elections, which, though meant to define the contours of a new state, have been completely warped by the political process that the Americans have been attempting for months to set in motion and that continues to hobble along precariously.
Pressured by US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and by the chief of the British Foreign Office, Jack Straw, to form a cabinet of national unity including members of the Sunni community (more than 20% of the population), the courageous Ibrahim Jaafari does what he can to accomplish a task that is visibly beyond his means –but which would be equally impossible for any other political figure in his place. Destroyed on Wednesday at dawn, the golden dome of the Samarra mosque, a masterpiece of Islamic architecture completed in 1905, sheltered the tombs of the last two visible imams of the community, Ali al-Hadi and his son Hassan al-Askari. According to tradition, the sanctuary is near the place where the last of the Shi’ite imams, Mohammad el-Mahdi, disappeared.
Without a doubt, the men in police uniform who planted the explosive charges inside mausoleum knew what the reaction would be. Two hours later, from Sadr City in the heart of the capital to the holy city of Najaf via Kut al-Amara, the worst was feared as angry crowds took to the streets, shouting slogans hostile not only at the “takfiri terrorists” but at the Americans, whom they accused of fomenting sedition despite the innumerable calls for calm by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and the exhortations of the Prime Minister “to prevent the terrorists from undoing national unity”. But in fact, by the end of the day there were murders and burning mosques in several locations in the capital. The scenario that is being drawn --if it is pursued to the ends planned by the authors of the attack-- will bring heavy consequences to bear on the Bush Administration.
The recent incidents only feed the fires of sectarianism, the fruit of dozens of years of oppression. The shadow of the Ba’ath, in power for forty uninterrupted years, continues to darken daily life even if Iraqis are becoming accustomed the absence of the ghosts of the past. Of course, the exhortations of religious leaders and the pleas for reason on the part of political leaders do much to prevent the situation from deteriorating. But a solution must still be found to the crisis into which Iraq has been plunged since the ill-fated US misadventure of March 2003 (already three years ago!). A solution is nowhere in sight for now. But it will not be the GIs, with their huge SUVs, their heavy artillery, and their notorious heavy-handedness or the politicians in Washington, as they look towards the next Congressional elections, to provide the solution –assuming there is one. Since the times of Noury as-Saïd, we already guessed that Iraq was not ripe for Western democracy or even the democracy of Haroon al-Rashid. The hand of the one-party state was too heavy and passed laws to the advantage of a single sect for far too long. It is not by installing a different sect in power that political balance acceptable to all the parties can be struck.
There is also the omnipresence of black gold, which fuels greed that is difficult to satisfy, especially since it lies in predominately Kurdish or Shi’ite areas, where they plan to distribute revenue according to a system of incomprehensible quotas. What else? Oh, plenty of things, like the prurient atavism of Turks towards the Kurds or dangerous Iranian proselytism about to acquire the atomic bomb. The mixture is highly unstable and could explode very soon –as long as the Americans continue to shake the container.