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 buried.
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 and Sunnis.
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 to Samarra.
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 the country.
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 generators.
"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."