Shrine attack deals blow to anti-US unity
Syed Saleem Shahzad, Asia Times:
KARACHI - Spring is only a month away, and preparations for Nauroz (the Persian new year) are well under way. In Iran this year, however, Nauroz was due to come with a deadly dimension: the start of a new phase of a broad-based anti-US resistance movement stretching from Afghanistan to Jerusalem.
Wednesday's attack on a revered shrine in Iraq could change all this.
The presence in Iran of the Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as members of the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan, is well known, as is the presence of other controversial figures related to the "war on terror", such as al-Qaeda members. Security contacts have told Asia Times Online that several al-Qaeda members have been moved from detention centers to safe houses run by Iranian intelligence near Tehran. READ MORE
The aim of these people in Iran is to establish a chain of anti-US resistance groups that will take the offensive before the West makes its expected move against Tehran.
Iran has been referred to the UN Security Council over its nuclear program, which the US and others say is geared towards developing nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency is due to present a final report to the Security Council next month, after which the council will consider imposing sanctions against Tehran. Many believe that the US is planning preemptive military action against Iran.
With Wednesday's attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra in Iraq, home to a revered Shi'ite shrine, the dynamics have changed overnight.
Armed men detonated explosives inside the mosque, blowing off the domed roof of the building. Iraqi leaders are trying to contain the angry reaction of Shi'ites, amid rising fears that the country is on the brink of civil war. At least 20 Sunnis have been killed already in retaliatory attacks, and nearly 30 Sunni mosques have been attacked across the country.
The potentially bloody polarization in the Shi'ite-Sunni world now threatens to unravel the links that have been established between Shi'ite-dominated Iran and radical Sunni groups from Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The blast in Samarra
Two of the 12 Shi'ite imams - Imam Ali al-Hadi, who died in AD 868, and his son, Imam Hasan al-Askari, who died in 874 - are buried at the mosque. The complex also contains the shrine of the 12th imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi, who is said to have gone into hiding through a cellar in the complex in 878, and is expected to return on Judgment Day.
Nevertheless, the sanctity of the tombs is of equal importance to Sunnis. Like the tombs of the Prophet Mohammed, Imam Ali and Imam Hussain, no self-respecting Muslim, whether Shi'ite or Sunni, would ever think of attacking such a place.
Further, the custodians of the shrine in Samarra have for many centuries been the descendants of Imam Naqi, called Naqvis, and they believe in Sunni Islam, as does the vast majority of the population of Samarra.
The present custodian is Syed Riyadh al-Kilidar, whom this correspondent met before the US attacked Iraq. Riyadh was arrested by US troops after Iraq was invaded, but released after brief detention.
The same is true of the Mosa Kazim Shrine in Baghdad, where the custodians have for many centuries been descendents of Imam Mosa Kazim. They are called Mosavis, and are Sunni Muslim. The previous custodian was Sayed Sabah bin Ibrahim al-Mosavi, whom this correspondent also met before the US invasion. He was a member of the Iraqi parliament during Saddam Hussein's era. After the US invasion he moved to Pakistan. Now the shrine is managed by Najaf Ashraf (al-Hoza).
Impact of the attack on the resistance
Both the Ansar al-Sunnah Army and the Mujahideen Shura Council - an alliance that includes Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda-affiliated group - are suspected of perpetrating the attack. Both groups have insurgents operating in Samarra, and have claimed responsibility for attacks against US and Iraqi forces there in recent weeks. No group has claimed responsibility for the Samarra attack.
Given that the sensibilities of both Shi'ites and Sunnis have been violated by the attack, the foreign factor in the Iraqi resistance could be curtailed.
At the same time, escalating sectarian strife will hamper the national resistance movement in cities such as Basra in the south and Baghdad, which have strong Shi'ite populations. People in these areas could quickly turn against what is perceived as a largely Sunni-led resistance, with a strong al-Qaeda link.
Leaders have scrambled to limit the damage. Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani immediately called for seven days of mourning following the attack, and urged Shi'ites to take to the streets in peaceful demonstrations. The cleric, who rarely appears in public, could be seen on Iraqi state television in a meeting with other leading ayatollahs.
Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who was in Lebanon as part of a regional tour, headed back to Iraq to join his supporters, who were already out in full force. Speaking to al-Jazeera television on Wednesday, Muqtada blamed all parties in the ongoing Iraq conflict for the attack. "It was not the Sunnis who attacked the shrine of Imam al-Hadi ... but rather the occupation; the Takfiris [those who accuse other Muslims of being infidels], al-Nawasib [a derogatory reference to those who declare hostilities against others] ... and the Ba'athists," he said. "We should not attack Sunni mosques. I ordered the [Imam] al-Mehdi Army to protect the Shi'ite and Sunni shrines and to show a high sense of responsibility, something they actually did."
The violence comes at a time that Iraqi leaders are trying to form a new coalition government that will bring Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds together. This process, like the resistance, is now also in jeopardy, as calls for separate, quasi-independent regions are bound to intensify.
The anti-US resistance movement had wanted to use Shi'ite Iran as the final base to link the resistance groups of this whole region.
If the current volatile situation results in Shi'ites sitting on one side, and Sunnis and al-Qaeda-linked groups on the other, this is unlikely to happen.
Instead, Iraq could become a new battlefield, not only against US-led forces, but between different factions. Iran, meanwhile, would be left to deal with the West on its own.
Syed Saleem Shahzad, Bureau Chief, Pakistan Asia Times Online. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org