Friday, February 24, 2006

Shrine attack part 4: Long time before we know the true impact

UPDATE 1900 EST Zeyad's neighborhood is safe. (For now.):
UPDATE: Apparently, the attackers were fended off in our neighbourhood. The fight ended about 2 hours ago, about the same time electric power returned to our area. Now we are only hearing sporadic gunshots here and there. To have an idea of what was going on, listen to these small audio files I recorded using a cell phone.

News are conflicting. Some say the local National Guard unit (its commander is from our own area) helped repel the assailants. Others say the neighbourhood watch teams clashed with an armed group in several unmarked vehicles.

The same situation occured in both Adhamiya and Al-Khadhraa'. In Adhamiya, armed groups in black crossed the river in boats from neighbouring Kadhimiya and took over the Nu'man hospital.

In Khadhraa', a combined force of Interior ministry forces and men dressed in black are surrounding 2 mosques with several families inside, threatening to burn them down on the occupants. Baghdad TV (the Islamic party's channel) is updating on the situation through telephone calls from inside the mosque. The families are crying for outside assistance.

Other bits from here and there:
An armed group in 10 vehicles with no number plates entered the Al-Iskan Al-Sha'bi district in Dora, and attempted to enter mosque, but was turned back by the residents. Eyewitnesses claim that as many as 40 bodies and 5 burnt vehicles are still in the area. 3 attackers were also killed in Dora when they attempted to enter the Al-Kubaisi mosque.

Another group dressed in black in one Daewoo and two Opel vehicles passed the Interior ministry forces' checkpoint at Abu Dshir square, south of Dora, with no resistance and entered the Yassin mosque with explosives in tin containers. The keeper was killed and the mosque blown up.

a Shi'ite armed group carried Sheikh Ghazi Al-Zoba'i in a pickup truck around Sadr city, shouting that they have a Wahhabi terrorist with them, before he was lynched on the streets by the angry mob.

Government officials and spokespersons are deliberately suppressing any news of these ongoing attacks on Sunni neighbourhoods and mosques. The official Al-Iraqiya channel is playing a historical movie, while other channels are playing Shi'ite mourning and Quran. The Interior ministry says it only has reports of 19 mosques attacked and one cleric killed. Go figure.


It is my sincere hope that someone in CENTCOM reads Andrew Sullivan and has a clue where Zeyad resides:
Fierce streetfighting at my doorstep for the last 3 hours. Rumor in the neighbourhood is that men in black are trying to enter the area. Some armed kids defending the local mosque three blocks away are splattering bullets at everything that moves, and someone in the street was shouting for people to prepare for defending themselves.

There's supposed to be a curfew, but it doesn't look like it. My net connection is erratic, so I'll try to update again if possible. The news from other areas in Baghdad are horrible. I don't think it's being reported anywhere.

My father and uncle are agitatedly walking back and forth in the hallway, asking me what we should do if the mob or Interior ministry forces try to attack us in our homes? I have no answer for them.
This would have been posted at about 3pm EST.

My original post:

The consensus seems to be that Iraq has calmed down and the curfew today kept the peace. However, the real impact of the attack on the Samarra shrine will not be discernable for some time. Optimism is extremely unwarranted even though Friday was a calm day and calls for peace and unity are prevalent. Pessimissm is an understandable reaction, but gauging the direction of Iraqi affairs now is too complex.

What is clear is that the government -- and the occupation by the coalition -- of Iraq has sustained a significant hit in prestige and legitimacy.

Today's optimism seems to stem from the apparent unity displayed by Hakim and the SCIRI, Sistani and Sadr. A closer examination of that unity would indicate that it disparages the government -- which is a very worrisome sign.

Juan Cole quotes Sadr:
“If the government had real sovereignty, then nothing like this would have happened,” al-Sadr said in a statement. “Brothers in the Mahdi Army must protect all Shiite shrines and mosques, especially in Samara.”
Borzou Daragahi notes the momentous speech from Grand Ayatollah Sistani:
Few Iraqis paid attention to Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and other leaders of political parties who called for calm. But many winced or smiled as the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the paramount Shiite leader here, issued an unusually bellicose statement suggesting it was time for "the faithful" to protect religious sites — an apparent endorsement of militias.
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, via CNN, condemned the bombers as "Takfiris" -- a loaded expression in Islam that could signal further violent reprisals:
Al-Hakim blamed the Golden Mosque bombing not on Iraqi Sunnis, but "takfiris," or extremists, who don't represent Islam, and he cited people such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the head of al Qaeda in Iraq.
The Times of London also quotes Hakim:
Other Shia leaders joined in the calls for calm. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the most powerful organisation in the Shia United Iraqi Alliance and which runs its own Badr militias, said that the bombing in Samarra was "not an act of the Sunnis of Iraq, but the Zarqawists and the Saddamists".
The Daily Times has a prominent Sunni (IAF) reaction:
"The leadership of the Iraqi Accordance Front has sent its apologies to the president to say they will not attend today’s meeting,” senior Front official Iyad al-Samarrai told Reuters.

“The government neglected to provide security for our sites ... They did not condemn these acts of aggression.”
CNN provides one Sunni reaction to the protests:
"We point the finger of blame at certain Shiite religious authorities calling for demonstrations, while they know Iraq cannot control the streets," said Sheik Abdul Salam al-Qubaisi.
The curfews were largely ignored in Sadr City, al Jazeera, but are another indication as to the government's inability to secure the country. The New York Times:
Across Iraq today, people walked through quiet streets to attend weekly prayer service at neighborhood mosques. Traffic was light because of a rare daytime curfew that the government had put in place to try to prevent worshippers from attending Friday Prayers, out of fear that imams would incite more violence. The groups that did gather appeared to do so in a largely peaceful manner, though.
Not only are bloggers dwelling in a land of farcical optimism, but (not surprisingly) the spin-crazy U.S. government shows a complete lack of understanding, the New York Times:
Top aides at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department all expressed the hope that the new violence did not portend civil war in Iraq. They found it in evidence that all sides were appealing for restraint, even the firebrand Moktada al-Sadr in Baghdad.

"Rather than see a collapse or a setback, I think in some ways, you can see an affirmation that the approach we've been taking has worked," said Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman. "You've got political leadership acting together on behalf of the common good, and you've got security forces demonstrating that capability and a responsibility as a national entity that we've been working to develop and that has now been put to the test and, I think, is proving successful."
Ereli has clearly no idea what is going on, or at the very least he does not want to admit it. The militias ran rampant on Wednesday and Thursday. The most effective Iraqi government formations remain uniformed militia formations. As for the political process, it has been undermined, perhaps fatally, by this attack and the reprisal riots. Sistani's remark endorsing the militias has been developing for some time -- as he has grown impatient with the security situation.

In fact, Ereli's remarks are now irrelevant. CNN has updated their story with Secretary of State Condi Rice's remarks:
BAGHDAD (CNN) -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that sectarian violence in Iraq has hurt the formation of a national unity government and that foreign terrorists may try to stoke clashes throughout the region.

"I think it's not surprising that people who don't want the political process to go forward are going to try and find some way in the 11th hour to set Iraqis against themselves," she said.

" ... this makes it harder today and perhaps tomorrow," Rice said, "but I'm confident that the Iraqis are devoted to, dedicated to, the formation of a national unity government and I think they will get back to that process very shortly."
At the very least, Rice admits the peril of the moment. However, it requires a stiff dose of eternal optimism to believe that the political process will return and a positive, constructive settlement will be reached between the Shiite and the Sunni.

Moreover, and perhaps the most troubling, Rice is using the same playbook that the administration has used throughout this long insurgency: the enemies of democracy and unity are at the last of their rope -- the 11th hour. On a twelve hour clock, Iraq may be at 3 or 4. Perhaps.

The Sunni and Shiite (and of course the Kurds) must feel that the "unity government" can protect them. Based on the curfews and the reinforced role of the militias in Iraqi society, this is not the case. If there really is a narrow window for some form of success, it has lost a great deal of open space with this attack and the reprisals. What was clear in Iraqi society, a low-grade civil war, has been made more visible this week.

No political figure of any note has stepped forward and called for a civil war. This is, necessarily, a good thing -- or perhaps it is necessarily not a bad thing. However, the political establishment that matters, the religious/political leaders, have inched toward the militias. Sadr was there. Hakim was there. Sistani is on his way.

The only government in Iraq that could maintain a militia based defense structure would be a loose confederation, or exactly what the Sunni nationalist insurgents do not want.

UPDATE 1700 EST. Fine reporting by Borzou Daragahi (My bolding):
By Borzou Daragahi
Times Staff Writer

12:47 PM PST, February 24, 2006

BAGHDAD — Political and religious leaders in Iraq scrambled today to halt the country's slide toward sectarian civil war, renewing for tomorrow an extraordinary daytime curfew that was temporarily relaxed to allow a small measure of respite for the country.

But Iraqi police today found at least 29 bodies scattered in Baghdad. Each corpse was handcuffed and had single gunshots to the head, in the style often attributed to Shiite death squads believed attached to the Ministry of Interior.

Violent protests sparked by the destruction of an important Shiite holy site Wednesday have left nearly 200 people dead in the country's worst spasm of inter-communal violence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ended the rule of former President Saddam Hussein. The curfew was extended until late Saturday afternoon, according to Iraqi television reports.

"This attack has had a major impact here, getting everyone's attention that Iraq is in danger, that the terrorists are trying to provoke a civil war," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in a telephone conference with reporters in Iraq.

Clerics held joint Sunni-Shiite prayer services broadcast on television, and security forces flooded the streets and beefed up protection of mosques and religious sites. U.S. military forces stepped up patrols around the volatile parts of the country. Politicians also held a series of emergency meetings meant to stave off more violence.

"There are meetings and meetings over and over again trying to put this crisis down," said Basam Redha, an aide to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari. "We have a lot of heated and steamed and upset people. We are calming down what we call the hotblooded young men in the Shiite community."

Still, Sunni Arab political parties refused to meet with their Shiite counterparts who control the government, blaming them for escalating tensions.

Although the day was calm for the most part, violence broke out in Samarra, home of the destroyed Shiite shrine. Two police officers were killed and two civilians injured in clashes and a vital oil pipeline set ablaze by saboteurs.

Calls for peace were also were tinged with anger. Sunnis and Shiites alike blamed each other for escalating sectarian strife. Clerics managed to deliver volatile prayer sermons today despite a security lockdown in four volatile provinces meant to forcibly cool passions. Shiite leaders called for street protests Saturday in the southern provinces.

"Why do they call demonstrations? What do they expect from demonstrators?" the prayer leader at the Ibn Tamiya mosque told followers in a speech broadcast throughout the neighborhood. "The Shiite clergy have to stop their foolish and silly people from attacking Sunni mosques."

The Mahdi army, a militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, demanded that it be given more authority in the streets and that Sunnis more vehemently denounce the bombing of the shrine.

"We are asking the government to give us the chance to protect the sacred symbols," the militia said in a statement released in shrine city of Najaf. "We are asking the Muslims of a united stance toward the [Sunni religious extremists], and the ones who keep silent will be considered the same."

Despite the curfew, huge crowds gathered today for prayers in the swaths of Baghdad and cities in the south controlled by Sadr loyalists. Prayer leader Salah Obeidi urged followers to hold funeral processions to honor the two saints buried in the Samarra holy site.

"We are brothers in the religion of Islam and in peace," he said of Shiites and Sunnis. "I am calling on you to love each other and not attack each other."


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