June 9, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Samarra, Iraq Reignites as a Sectarian Flashpoint

• Even within the normal high-stakes tensions of post-war Iraq, the situation in Samarra has the potential to reignite simmering sectarian violence across the country

• It was al Qaeda’s February 2006 bombing of Samarra’s Golden Mosque that helped turn an anti-occupation insurgency into a full-blown religious civil war

• Al Qaeda—semantics aside with ISIS’ split from al Qaeda central—is now threatening to take control of Samarra, making a repeat of the devastating 2006 provocations and reactions more possible than at any time in the last eight years

• If there were to be renewed widespread sectarian fighting, there will be no US-led ‘surge’ to bring the violence back down to barely tolerable levels, with troubling consequences for Iraq and the entire region.

After attacking several government and police buildings in Samarra, Iraq, within the last week the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) was temporarily in control of most of the town, disturbingly close to several highly symbolic Shi’a mosques. After extensive fighting, ISIS pulled back from the center of town but remains a threat. Aside from being a troubling indication of the persistent relative strength of ISIS despite attempts to eradicate the group, ISIS’s semi-control of Samarra is extremely dangerous as it relates to the always tenuous Sunni-Shi’a relations in Iraq. It was, after all, the February 2006 bombing of the al ‘Askari Mosque, aka the Golden Mosque, in Samarra that helped turn a violent intermittent sectarian conflict into all-out religious civil war in Iraq. Tens of thousands of Iraqis died at the hands of their countrymen in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing. The situation in Iraq now is as precarious as 2006, only without 150,000 US troops in place to help quell the sectarian violence. A successful attack on the Golden Mosque now could have catastrophic consequences.

2014 is not 2006, but that might not be a good thing when it comes to Iraq’s religious violence. In 2006, Iraq was still convulsing from the US-led 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation, even as sectarian conflicts roiled at a lower but still crippling level. It was in every way a traumatized nation. But the atavistic violence that has come to symbolize that time period in Iraq began immediately after the February 22, 2006 bombing of Samarra’s Golden Mosque, the third holiest site in Shi’a Islam. The 2007 surge of American troops into major cities, primarily Baghdad, but also Ramadi and Samarra, was in response to the waves of violence that crashed over the nation after the Samarra bombing.

However, in 2014, three significant factors differ negatively from 2006:

Firstly, it’s no longer just Iraq that is in the throes of armed conflict. In 2006, Iraq’s neighbors were somewhat better positioned to, if not help Iraq, at least not make it much worse. This is not the case in 2014. The ongoing civil war in neighboring Syria is an accelerant with which 2006 Iraq didn’t have to contend. It is hard to overestimate the negative impact Syria is having on Iraq, as the two conflicts merge into one. Furthermore, countries that were able, with immense difficulty and societal cost, to absorb the large numbers of Iraqi refugees fleeing the war in 2006 are now overwhelmed with Syrian refugees fleeing that conflict.

Secondly, 2014 Iraq doesn’t have the level of direct support from the US military as it did when 150,000 troops were positioned across Baghdad and other central Iraqi cities to limit the increasing violence.

And thirdly, social media platforms such as Twitter and YouTube, from which Arab youth get the majority of their news, wasn’t around in 2006. Now in 2014, any attack on the mosques in Samarra would spread across the region and globe at light speed, overwhelming local attempts to manage the outrage.

If ISIS, which attempted to storm the Golden Mosque and came within less than a kilometer away as they battled Iraqi forces, are able to attack the mosque now, it will present the nation with its greatest challenge since 2006. While Iraqi politics are fraught with tension, the country has achieved relative stability through multiple political crises. ISIS has persisted as a threat but it has been unable to set the country against itself as it did (or as it’s earlier al Qaeda in Iraq form did) in 2006. The war in Syria, and the continuing Sunni dissatisfaction with the Maliki government, has strengthened ISIS and radicalized a region already ripe with shadowy sectarian intrigue between rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Adding to the challenges, last week a suicide bomber killed Muhammad Khamis Abu Risha, the head of the Ramadi Awakening Council (the Awakening movement helped defeat al Qaeda, as Sunni tribesmen turned against AQI and routed them with support from the US military). Abu Risha was the nephew of Shaykh Abdul Sattar, the head of the Anbar Province Awakening Council who was killed by AQI in 2007 precisely because he was helping counter the violence in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing.

Unfortunately, the risk of a new civil war breaking out in Iraq is at its highest levels while the ability and willingness of Iraq and the region to mitigate and alleviate the risk of conflict is at its lowest—a toxic combination.

With memories of 2006 in mind, Sunni religious groups have vowed to help protect the Golden Mosque. However, ISIS is not concerned with support from such groups, and will, if able, attack the mosque in hopes of reigniting the war. It will take both strong domestic restraint and positive regional support to avert a tragic repeat of history.



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