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Iraq: Samarra Bombing Begins Year Of Violence

By Kathleen Ridolfo

February 12, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- On February 11, the Iraqi government commemorated the first anniversary of the bombing of the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra. The February 22, 2006, bombing marked an escalation in sectarian tensions between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs that has yet to subside. February 11 coincides with the anniversary of the attack according to the Islamic calendar.

Few could have expected before the attack that fellow Muslims would go so far as to destroy a holy shrine. To Iraq's Shi'a, the attack struck at the heart of their faith, and was more devastating than even the assassination of their revered Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who was killed in an August 2003 car bombing outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Al-Najaf. That attack was blamed on Ba'athist insurgents.

The Samarra bombing, blamed on Sunni insurgents, appeared to be a response to the growing strength of the Shi'a in Iraq. It came as Iraqi political groups were locked in tough negotiations over the composition of the incoming, Shi'a-led, permanent government.

Sectarian Violence Affects Government

As winners of the December 2005 elections, the main Shi'ite alliance was pushing to secure Ibrahim al-Ja'fari's leadership of the government, much to the chagrin of Sunni Arabs and Kurds, who viewed the outgoing prime minister with disdain due to his poor leadership. A national-unity government, the detractors surmised, was the only way forward.

While Sunni Arabs and Kurds succeeded in their bid for a national-unity government, repercussions from the bombing, seen in the growing distrust between Sunnis and Shi'a, hung over the new government and prevented much progress from being made.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, reprisal attacks were carried out against Sunni Arab mosques, political parties, and individuals. The bodies of Sunni Arab men, kidnapped, tortured and killed, began showing up on the streets of the capital with increasing frequency -- the apparent work of Shi'ite death squads rumored to be linked to the government.

In June, the Iraqi government announced it had arrested a member of a seven-man cell that was allegedly responsible for the bombing. The man, a Tunisian identified as Abu Qudamah, said the cell was led by Samarra-born Haytham Sabah Shakir Mahmud al-Badri. The other members included four Saudis and two Iraqis, national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i said at the time. Before 2003, al-Badri was linked to the Hussein regime. He was subsequently linked to the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army and the Al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq.

The government announced on September 3 that it had arrested Al-Qaeda in Iraq's No. 2, Hamid Juma al-Saidi, who they said helped plan the attack.

Premier Says Muslim Leaders Should Have Done More

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki marked the anniversary on February 11 with a statement saying the bombers attempted to sever national unity with the attack, but failed thanks to the response of patriotic political forces and the Shi'ite leadership in Al-Najaf.

And he said that while Islamic leaders across the world condemned the attack, they could have done more to prevent the bloodshed that followed in ensuing months.

"We firmly believe that the booby-trapped cars and the belts of death would not have claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians throughout the past year had these authorities issued a religious fatwa [edict] declaring the parties that carried out the Samarra crime to be in violation" of Islam and ruling that "joining these deviant groups is religiously prohibited," al-Maliki contended.

In Al-Najaf last week, Shi'ite cleric Ahmad al-Safi asked Friday Prayer worshippers to take part in a demonstration marking the anniversary in Karbala on February 12. Al-Safi is a representative of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Al-Safi also criticized al-Maliki's administration, saying it had not done enough to stem sectarian violence. "The government should tell the Iraqi people about who is blocking the way of conducting the security plan and we demand that the government not reveal details of the plan," he added in an apparent reference to press reports that details of planned operations under the Baghdad security offensive have been made public.

Ayatollah al-Sistani said in a statement posted to his website on February 11 that the bombing plunged Iraq into a cycle of blind violence. "We call on the believers as they mark this sad occasion and express their exercise maximum levels of restraint and not to do or say anything that would harm our Sunni brothers who are innocent for what happened and who do not accept it," the cleric said.

Caught Off-Guard

The decision of the Iraqi government to commemorate the anniversary of the bombing according to the Islamic calendar, which moves 11 days ahead each year, came as a surprise to many observers. It is likely that the Shi'ite-led government chose the Islamic calendar over the Gregorian calendar as a means of underscoring the attack's impact on Sunni-Shi'ite relations in Iraq.

Whether intended or not, the use of the Islamic calendar served another purpose -- with the announcement of the commemoration coming late in the day, Sunni Arab insurgents were deprived of the opportunity to mark the anniversary with similar attacks, while Shi'ite militias were also deprived of the opportunity to launch revenge attacks.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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