Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

25 February 2006

Who Bombed the Golden Dome?


The bombing of the Al-Askariya “Golden Mosque” in Samarra last Tuesday was a crime against humanity.  The mosque complex had stood for over 1100 years.  In size, age and surpassing beauty, its golden dome was unique in the Islamic world.  Its destruction was reminiscent of the Taliban’s year-2000 destruction of the fifth-century Buddhas in Bamiyan.  You don’t have to be a Muslim to abhor that sort of crime.

Suspicion has focused on Sunni Baathist extremists or Al-Zarqawi’s thugs, possibly in collusion.  The main evidence against them is the perpetrators’ “professionalism.” Apparently the bombers were trained in demolition.  In a few minutes, they entered the mosque, planted their explosives, escaped unharmed, and brought down the golden dome with surgical precision.

Yet drawing conclusions from modus operandi alone is unwise, especially in Iraq.  Plenty of explosives for the crime were available from unguarded arms caches all over the country. The Iran-Iraq war ran eight years, from 1980 to 1988.  It involved millions of troops on both sides; estimates of the dead alone range up to 1.5 million. Surely not everyone who learned to handle explosives in that long war was a Sunni Baathist.

One feature of the golden-mosque bombing was highly unusual.  Innumerable people, mostly Shiites, have died in recent explosions in Iraq, but here no one died.  Any analysis of responsibility must account for that odd fact.

Motive is usually much more reliable in solving crimes than modus operandi.  The apparent goal of the bombing was to ignite a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, and perhaps in the whole region.  Who would stand to gain from civil war?

In the long run, Sunni Baathists most likely would not.  Their geographic, demographic, industrial and military position is highly vulnerable.  For them, the most likely outcome of all-out sectarian war in Iraq would be substantial destruction and loss of what remains of their hold on power, if not territory.  The only conceivable circumstance in which they might dream of winning would be a precipitous withdrawal of American forces, including air power---an event unlikely to occur.

No one can entirely rule out Sunni Baathist involvement.  In every respect---political, economic, and military---their power is on the wane, while Shiites’ power increases daily.  Baathist extremists might have wanted to provoke a civil war before the balance of power shifts decisively against them.

But why would they spare Shiite lives?  If they really wanted to foment civil war and strike terror in their enemies, why not blow the dome during Friday evening prayers, when the blast and falling stone might have killed or injured hundreds?   There may have been practical, logistical reasons for not doing so, but the total absence of victims is striking.

The same reasoning applies to Zarqawi’s thugs, who style themselves “Al Qaeda in Iraq.”  They have never blanched at killing Shiites or other Muslims in large numbers.  Why stop now?  Furthermore, their usual modus operandi is suicide bombing, not surgically precise building demolition.  The operation simply does not “smell” like Zarqawi, unless he and his minions have suddenly taken to heart the universal Muslim revulsion at killing so many devout Shiites.

So there is considerable reason to doubt the usual suspects’ guilt.  Who else might be responsible?

It was not Hitler’s enemies, as he claimed, who burned down the Reichstag before World War II.  It was Hitler’s own Brown Shirts, seeking to exploit the resulting public outrage and insecurity to cement the Nazis’ hold on power.  Could the golden dome’s destruction be analogous?

Unlike Sunni Baathists, two forces have a distinct probability of gaining from a civil war in Iraq.  One is Muqtada Al Sadr.  The other is Iran.  

Muqtada is a unique mullah in Iraq. He does not have the formal religious education required of Shiite clerics.  Instead, he bases his religious authority on his family origins.

He is no stranger to covert revolutionary and violent acts.  His father in law, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqr as Sadr, is believed to have been one of the first leaders of Al Dawah, a then-secret Iranian-backed revolutionary party in Saddam’s Iraq.  Muqtada himself is a suspect in the murder of Ayatollah Abdul Majid Al-Khoei---son of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s teacher---by a mob of Muqtada’s supporters in 2003.

Furthermore, Muqtada has very personal reasons to despise Baathists and, by extension, all Sunnis.  Saddam had Muqtada’s father in law (the same Baqr as Sadr) executed in 1980 for alleged involvement in attempts to kill Iraqi ministers.  Saddam is also believed to have ordered the bombing assassination of Muqtada’s own father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, in 1999.  Muqtada’s two brothers died in that bombing.  Thus, Muqtada has every reason to believe that Saddam and the Baathists nearly wiped out his family.

Muqtada has all the makings of an Iraqi Milosevic.  Like Milosevic, whose parents both committed suicide, he has a history of family tragedy.  Unlike Milosevic, he has someone specific to blame: Saddam and the Baathists.  He has his own militia and a renegade mullah’s ability to rationalize any act.  He has a large and ever-growing following in the Shiite slums of Baghdad.  He is undoubtedly the most dangerous man in Iraq---far more than Zarqawi, whose native support is tenuous among Sunnis and nonexistent among Shiites.

Could Muqtada have ordered the golden dome’s destruction?  The Al-Askariya Mosque is a holy Shiite shrine, but it’s not Muqtada’s.  It’s in Samarra, in the Sunni triangle, far from Muqtada’s turf in Najaf.  He could easily blame its disfigurement on local Sunnis.  And there is still that strange and wonderful fact: no victims.

Yet the most persuasive reason to finger Muqtada is what he has to gain.  An Iraqi judge issued an arrest warrant for Muqtada for the murder of Ayatollah Al-Khoei, but the warrant has never been enforced.  After an inconclusive battle with Coalition forces, Muqtada cut a deal: he would remain at large but would disband his militia.  For political reasons, Muqtada indeed remains at large; but it is an open secret that his “Mahdi Militia” still exists and may be growing.

Muqtada therefore has much to gain from civil war.  The closer Iraq comes to a secure, civil society, the closer Muqtada comes to trial for the murder of Al-Khoei.  The stronger and more professional the Iraqi military becomes, the greater the chance of disbanding Muqtada’s militia.  Without a formal religious education or the authority to issue fatwas, Muqtada would have little authority in a stable, peaceful Iraq.  The more democratic and stable Iraq becomes, the less of a future any young firebrand like him will have.  

Civil war, however, might allow him to thrive.  In a widespread civil war, the Coalition would be powerless to control the entire country.  Militias like Muqtada’s would have relatively free reign.  Sunni-hating Shiites would join the Mahdi Militia in droves.  Muqtada could have his revenge, killing Sunni Baathists with abandon.

Muqtada might also have a shot at real power.  Coalition forces might withdraw or downsize, if only temporarily to “sit out” the civil war.  When (if ever) they returned in full force, Muqtada and his militia might be on top.  He would then have a real chance of becoming the next Iraqi strongman.  At very least, he would be a far more formidable force in the formation of any post-civil-war government, whether by ballots or by bullets.  And the murder charge against him likely would get lost in the chaos of civil war.

The other force that could gain from civil war is Iran.  In any civil war, Iraqi Sunnis would suffer terribly.  They would likely lose all remnants of control over power and economic resources, if not territory.  Iran’s mullahs could then enjoy real victory over their old enemies in the inconclusive eight-year war, bought with others' blood.

It is unlikely that Iran would ever annex Iraq, or even part of it, simply because of the Shiite connection.  Iraq’s Shiites are very different from Iran’s.  Iraq’s mullahs are more democratic and reasonable, and there is no lack of bad blood, even among Shiites, between Iran and Iraq.  In addition, Iran is Persian and Iraq Arabic, with vastly differing histories and frequent conflict.

But with peace between Iran and Iraq, there is some risk that Iraqi Shiites will find common ground with their Iranian “brethren” on many issues.  A civil war between Shia and Sunni in Iraq would increase that risk greatly.

War has a way of inciting extremism, including religious extremism.  A civil war would give extremists like Muqtada the upper hand over democrats for the foreseeable future.  It might well turn Iraq away from secular democracy and toward an extreme theocracy like Iran’s.  Only a truly Lincolnesque leader could prevent that from happening, and Grand Ayatollah Sistani is the only candidate for that role.  He is old and frail and might not survive a long war.

Iran’s true interest appears in its courtship of Muqtada.  No less a figure than Iran’s former President Rafsanjani praised Muqtada and his militia before the present deal to “disband” Muqtada’s militia was cut.  Iran has many ties with extreme elements of Iraqi Shia, and it may be supporting Muqtada’s militia with more than words.

But the clincher for Iran’s interest is what a civil war would avoid.  Iran has every reason to fear strong, stable democracies on its borders, whether or not Shiite.  One on its eastern border---Afghanistan---is well on its way.  A strong democracy in Iraq might well be the beginning of the end for the mullahs’ isolated regime.

Could someone in Iran have ordered or tolerated desecration of a holy Shiite shrine?   From a religious perspective, that seems unlikely.  But not all of Iran’s leaders are holy men.  There is the military, and there is President Ahmadinejad’s increasingly belligerent political regime.  Furthermore, the shrine is easily restored, and no lives were lost.  A Sunni sheikh, in the interests of national unity, has already offered money for its restoration.

In his public statements, Iran’s President is one of the most intemperate world leaders since Adolf Hitler.  He has advocated destruction of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.  He has insisted on Iran’s right to enrich uranium for allegedly peaceful purposes, but virtually no one believes Iran’s enrichment will stop with civilian applications.  It is not hard to imagine that he, or someone acting for his regime (perhaps with plausible deniability), ordered the golden dome’s destruction.


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