After al-Askariya II: What To Look For
With al-Qaeda's second bombing of the al-Askariya mosque and shrine in Samarra, all eyes are turned 60 miles to the south to Baghdad, on the lookout for an expected spike in sectarian violence. Here are some things to consider and look for in the ensuing 72-hour period.
- In the same period after the first al-Askariya bombing in 2006, the immediate Baghdad sectarian death toll was somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000. If 'numbers' (forgive, please) between now and Saturday do not approach this, things may turn quite differently this time.
- The number of dead in Baghdad on the day of the bombing was 26. That number may be off by one or two, but immaterial to the following point... Keep in mind that the average number of Iraqis killed in Baghdad since the 'surge' began has been somewhere between 20 and 25.
- While Muqtada al-Sadr 'called for peaceful demonstrations' in response, he called for the same things last year immediately following the Samarra bombing.
- Since General Petraeus arrived in Baghdad with his unapologetically forward-leaning demeanor, Muqtada al-Sadr saved his own skin by retreating to the friendly confines of Iran. With that, his loose gaggle called the Mahdi Army did what loose gaggles do without leadership: They fractured and disintegrated. If Muqtada al-Sadr can leverage this to reconstitute his (over-hyped in 2005 & 2006) Mahdi Army band of thugs, this would bode trouble. But his retreat to Iran and abandonment of his foot soldiers leaves a mark that makes this difficult at best.
- The cohesive core of the Mahdi Army (once a group of an estimated 60,000, according to the Iraq Study Group) remained (and remain) in his absence. This group, about 3,000 hard core Shi'a militants, is comprised of the EJK cells (Extra-Judicial Killing), professional assassins trained, supported and - according to General Petraeus, not me - directed by Iran's Quds Force. Expect much of the reprisals against Sunnis (again, primarily civilians) to be the handiwork of these Iranian-backed crews.
- Watch carefully for the language used in Sunni and Shi'a Friday prayers tomorrow. Most important to watch are the Baghdad area mosques, where the Shi'a and Sunni population lines most visibly meet and blur, and where the majority of the sectarian violence 'score settling and re-settling' cycle in 2006 played out its deadly track.
In his report at the New York Sun today, the indispensable Eli Lake quoted Dr. Mary Habeck on the situation going forward. Those looking for reason to see other than despair should consider her words.
A professor of strategic studies at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies, Mary Habeck, yesterday said she thinks the implications of the mosque bombing won't be the same as last year. "If this was last year and this was the first time this happened, I would think this was the end of the world," Ms. Habeck said. She added that Iraqis have the bitter experience of turning to al Qaeda and Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army in the last year. "When people ran to them for support and protection, they found themselves being forced to live in a way that does not match with their understanding of Islam, and they found themselves being killed and intimidated by al Qaeda," she said.
As she says, it is not 2006. For those not familiar with Dr. Mary Habeck, rest assured, she knows the enemy.
When it comes to defining and quantifying the sectarian violence expected to ensue to some degree, listed above are the key indicators to look for. Judge for one's self. Be wary of scanning headlines and opening paragraphs and arriving at an emotional conclusion. It's not going to be good. But the question is one of true relativity to 2006, and the key to assessing this is context.
The September assessment of 'the surge' is coming. Al-Qaeda knows it. Iran knows it. The attack on the mosque is not a message to Iraqis. It's a message to the American public and political class. They want you to sit back and watch the show.
September is their finish line - timeline, anyone? Iran and al-Qaeda should be expected to ratchet up the violence and mayhem accordingly. The question is, will Iraqis indulge their inciting ways?