ARBIL - Iraq is again haunted by the ghosts of Samarra, with last week's attack
on the Shia-revered al-Askari mosque raising fears that it could touch off a
new wave of sectarian violence in a country already crippled by large-scale
violence and political crisis.
In a similar move last year, al-Qaeda in Iraq bombed the golden dome of the
Samarra shrine, 125 km north of Baghdad, where two of Shia's holy imams are
According to the beliefs of the Shia sect of Islam, the promised savior Mahdi
will come back to life from that mosque. Last year's incident caused a drastic
rise in violence in Iraq that claimed thousands of lives in Shia-Sunni reprisal
attacks and displaced hundreds of thousands. It marked a turning point in al-Qaeda's
proclaimed strategy to trigger an all-out civil war between the country's Shias
The repercussions of the second Samarra bombing have so far been limited to
a few attacks on Sunni targets in Baghdad and Basra. This time around, the Iraqi
government managed to largely contain reprisals by quickly imposing curfews
in Baghdad and other cities across the country and dispatching hundreds of troops
Nevertheless, observers warn that if additional measures are not taken, the
latest Samarra incident in which no one was killed but the mosque's famed
golden minarets were destroyed could spark a new round of sectarian bloodshed
in the country.
"The Samarra bombing shows that the sectarian conflict in Iraq is far
from over," Sami Shorish, a political analyst from Arbil, told IPS. "If
concrete political steps towards national reconciliation are not taken immediately
and effectively, the Samarra attack and similar incidents will very negatively
affect Iraq's security and political situation in fact, much worse than what
we are witnessing today."
The bombing is considered a serious blow to the ongoing efforts of the Iraqi
and U.S. governments to curtail violence in the country. Despite an ongoing
security operation since last February originally code-named "Operation
Imposing Law" by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and U.S. officials
a recent Pentagon report to the U.S. Congress admits the level of violence
in Iraq has remained "relatively unchanged." Iraqi and American commanders
concede that they only control 40 percent of the capital Baghdad.
"Iraq's main problem is not a military or security one but is a political
problem," Shorish said. "Without political steps aimed at creating
conciliation among various groups, neither Operation Imposing Law nor any other
military and security operation can end the chaos and terror."
Iraqi politicians say they are closely watching the situation, and Abdul-Khaliq
Zangana, a Kurdish member of Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, recently voiced concern
over possible consequences of the Samarra bombing.
Iraq's deepening sectarianism appears to have thwarted hopes of a major breakthrough
in political and security arenas. The Pentagon report released in early June
cites among other reasons, "the dominance of identity politics over politics
based on issues" as well as lack of "cooperation among political parties"
as two major factors driving the current crisis in Iraq.
Zangana acknowledges that sectarianism has become the "prevailing norm"
in the functioning of government institutions.
In reality, sectarian differences have hindered the passage of several crucial
laws and constitutional amendments regarded as key to the efforts to stabilize
Iraqi Sunni Arabs who complain of marginalization are eager to see the ratification
of a new oil law and a revision of de-Ba'athification law that has blocked many
of them from working in public positions.
"The country is in a continuous state of crisis
and the coming
months will be a difficult test for Iraqi government and parliament," Zangana
told IPS in a telephone interview from Baghdad. "Despite many promises
that have been given, major measures have not been taken in practice in terms
of improving the security situation or the state of services and economy."
He said that people in Baghdad are experiencing extremely difficult conditions.
For instance, electricity is only available for a few hours, water shortages
have become part of daily life and people are standing in long queues under
Baghdad's burning heat to get a few liters of oil to operate their private electric
"The situation is really unbearable here. People are living in bad conditions
and are facing different kind of formidable problems," Zangana said. "I
really don't know how long people are going to tolerate this situation."