February 27, 2006
Iraq invasion enters its final, most horrific act, says Firas Al-Atraqchi
When Operation Bodyguard was launched ahead of D-Day on June 6,
1944, the military planners said: "In times of war, truth is protected
by a bodyguard of lies".
This was in reference to the feint which deceived Hitler's forces
and paved the way for the allied landings on the beaches of Normandy.
Today, that sentiment holds as true as ever, particularly when it
comes to the question of timing and identity of the perpetrators of the
criminal attack on the Askariya mosque in the Iraqi city of Sammara.
First, the timing.
Since Iraqis went to the polls on December 15, there has been
political friction between the various parties -- the Sunnis accusing
the Shia of massive fraud -- which permeated a sense of tension in the
In the two months since the polls, no viable government has been
created. Two weeks prior to the Askariya mosque bombing, the Shia, Kurd
and Sunni parties huddled together to form a government.
Almost immediately, the US administration intervened to ensure that
a more "inclusive", non-sectarian government would be formed. The
pressure for the US to succeed in Iraq has diverted attention to
keeping Iran out of Iraqi affairs.
After Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud ?Al-Faisal chided the US
for handing Iraq over to Iran last September, there has been a subtle
policy shift in the US approach to Iraq as well as coverage of events
in the media.
No longer do we hear of "insurgents", but US media has gone to great
lengths recently to distinguish between Al-Qaida forces and Iraqi
resistance groups, often depicting the two in pitch battles against
Then came the revelations of torture chambers operated by "elements"
in the Shia-led Interior Ministry and the free roaming death squads,
who, US forces say, are loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army.
In the few days immediately prior to the mosque attack we saw the following flurry of activity:
Muqtada Sadr, fresh from a visit to Iran, gives former Iraqi Prime
Minister Ibrahim Jaafary the needed vote to retain his post in the new
permanent four-year government. However, he also said that he rejected
the current constitution and believed federalism (the context which the
Kurds have insisted be included) should be rejected.
He also called on US forces to withdraw immediately just before embarking on a diplomatic tour of Arab capitals.
In the meantime, US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad began to up the ante
by insisting that the Sunni bloc (numbering 55 in the 275-member
legislature) be given more power. Reports had indicated that the US had
wanted to see former premier Iyad Allawi as the next prime minister.
All of a sudden, Jaafari's promised post did not seem as assured.
US media also increased the pressure as The New York Times, Los
Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, among others, reported on the
death squads affiliated with the Iraqi Interior Ministry. When the
Ministry did not budge on the issue, US media quoted US military
sources saying some 1500 highway police could also be part of an
extended death squad network.
Four days before the Askariya bombing, US media reported that 400
members (including senior level) of the Interior Ministry were
themselves under investigation for allegations ranging from corruption
to involvement in running torture chambers and operating death squads.
Two days prior to the Askariya bombing, UK Foreign Secretary Jack
Straw arrived in Baghdad to help ratchet up the pressure on Jaafari and
his Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI) allies in the
Iran, the main SCIRI-backer, reiterated its position that UK forces
should completely withdraw from the south of Iraq after the video of
British troops beating Iraqi children. The logic goes that once the UK
troops withdraw, security would be handled by armed militia in the
south -- Badr Organization (SCIRI's armed wing) and the Mehdi Army.
Khalilzad in turn accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs in the
strongest terms yet accusing Tehran of a "comprehensive strategy ... by
a player seeking regional pre-eminence".
Of course, his statements -- made a day before the shrine attack -
also alluded to the ongoing breakdown in talks over Iran's nuclear
ambitions. He also took a swipe at Iraq's diplomatic relations with
Iran (brokered by none other than Jaafari in Tehran in early 2005)
saying it was governed by a policy "to work with militias, to work with
extremist groups, to provide training and weapons."
Less than 12 hours later, the Askariya Mosque in Sammara was partially destroyed with the 1200-year shrine gutted.
As Sunni mosques were burned in reprisal attacks and Sunnis were
gunned down in the streets, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of SCIRI and the
Badr Organization which has come under so much pressure from the
Americans, lashed out against Khalilzad.
"For sure, the statements made by the ambassador were not made in a
responsible way and he did not behave like an ambassador," al-Hakim
told reporters. "These statements were the reason for more pressure and
gave green lights to terrorist groups. And, therefore, he shares in
part of the responsibility."
It is important to note here that Hakim had been asking US forces to
relinquish security control to his forces, despite the evidence piling
up against his Badr Organization of running death squads and torture
As hundreds of Sunni mosques came under attack, Iranian cleric in
Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on the Shia community to
protest the attack on the shrine, but to remain restrained.
He also made a veiled threat against the Americans, which was
significantly downplayed in US media. He said if US forces could not
maintain security of holy shrines, his own forces would take over. It
is unknown whether he was directly referring to his own militia, Ansar
Sistani, the Mehdi Army, or Badr.
The importance of this statement cannot be emphasised enough as it
comes after much US pressure regarding death squads, Hakim's demand for
more control of security, and Iran's call for a withdrawal of UK troops.
Protection ofthe Askariya mosque in Sammara is becoming a major
issue as Iraqis attempt to understand who would mount such a villainous
attack on a Shrine revered by both Shia and Sunni.
Sammara itself is a predominantly Sunni city and the Askariya Mosque
falls under the Sunni Endowment, a government body that caters to the
needs of Sunni mosques and religious establishments throughout the
During its 100-year existence, the Askariya Mosque, housing the
1200-year shrine, was never attacked. The Sunni population of Sammara
took particular pride in its care, a symbol of Shia-Sunni brotherhood.
Sammara is the site of the disappearance of the 12th and
last Imam -- Mohammed al-Mahdi, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.
It is said he will return to restore justice to the world.
In addition to Najaf and Karbala, Sammara is also a destination for Shia pilgrims from around the world.
But Sammara itself has been a center of conflict. It has been "won"
and lost by US forces battling Al-Qaida in Iraq several times. In the
last round of conflict, the US military had congratulated itself for
pacifying the city.
On Friday, as a general curfew managed to secure some parts of
Baghdad, Iraqi officials said the attack on the shrine was the work of
Construction Minister Jassem Mohammed Jaafar, who toured Sammara and
inspected the damage incurred to the shrine, said the placing of
explosives inside the dome was meticulous and must have taken at least
"Holes were dug into the mausoleum's four main pillars and packed
with explosives," he told the media, adding that work on each pillar
must have taken at least four hours.
This is an astounding statement to make. This means that the
perpetrators had free rein for much of the time to carry out their
How did they get access to the shrine in the first place?
Initial reports said that four men, one donning Interior Ministry
commando garb, stormed the Shrine after dawn prayers on Wednesday, took
the five guards hostage, and fled before detonating their explosive
They released the guards and mingled with worshippers for the Fajr prayers before slipping out.
Reports later said that the attackers were 10 men dressed in commando outfits and that they had been apprehended.
The shrine is meant to be protected by a contingent of 35 Interior
Ministry troops because the Mosque is of particular importance to the
Questions abound. Why was the security detail reduced from 35 to only five men guarding such an important shrine?
If it took at least 12 hours to plant the explosives, why did no one notice that the five police guards had been taken hostage?
If it took at least 12 hours to plant the explosives, would that not
have meant access to the shrine during evening prayers the night before?
Iraqi journalist executed
Hoping to find answers and interview residents of Sammara, the
Al-Arabiya news network dispatched three of its journalists, including
former Aljazeera reporter Atwar Bahjat, herself a native of the ancient
Sources in Iraq say she was interviewing residents when a truck full
of unknown armed men abducted her as she screamed for help. Bahjat, 30,
of mixed Sunni-Shia heritage, was found executed outside Sammara, along
with her cameraman and sound technician. Her field equipment and video
Iraqi websites have surmised as to why Bahjat was so brutally murdered and what became of her video material.
According to Iraqi blogger Zeyad of Healing Iraq, quoting other
Iraqi sources, Bahjat had been filming the arrest of two Iranians in
Sammara who were let go when Interior Minister Baqer Jabr arrived on
This has not been independently verified.
Sammara eyewitness, however, have published accounts on various
websites, like Iraqirabita.org, saying US and Iraqi forces had sealed
off access ways to the Shrine the night prior to the explosion. Some
have said that Bahjat had interviewed some of these eyewitnesses.
This also could not be independently verified.
But what can be verified is that Iraq is the focus of a conspiracy
as President Jalal Talabani rightly said. The conspiracy is to tear
Iraq at the seams and pit sectarian differences into a diabolical civil
As I write this, I am getting reports from Iraq that Sunni
neighbourhoods have formed clusters of militia to protect the mosques,
some 196 of which have been attacked, destroyed or razed to the ground.
Iraqi sources are saying that despite Sadr's statements that Sunnis
should not be targeted by his militia, they have continued to attack,
kidnap and torture those they suspect of being Sunni.
Who benefits from this? Who benefits from a civil war in Iraq and the killing of tens of thousands?
Have Iraqis not warned that the current government was at best
incompetent and at worst complicit in further widening the gap between
the various Iraqi sects and religions?
During his visit earlier this year to Iran, Sadr pledged he would
support and defend Iran if it were attacked by the US. As talk of an
imminent attack on Iranian nuclear facilities escalated, Iranian
officials dropped hints that Iraq would be turned into a hellhole for
the Americans before they could ever mount an attack against Iran.
Iraq is the battlefield in which Iranian and US interests are currently being played out.
Iraq is on the edge of an abyss, one many Iraqis fear looking into.
However, they may have to in order to realize the gravity of their
situation. If they do not find a medium approach to resolving their
political differences and ensuring that militia are rendered impotent,
Iran may very well have won the US invasion of Iraq.