The past weeks in Iraq have been marked by an alarming uptick in violence. A recent CNN tally suggested at least 180 people were killed during the month of June – most of them victims of frequent bombings and small arms attacks.
Umpteen explosions in Baghdad, and high-profile assaults against Shi’a pilgrims occupied the top headlines – the June 13 attack that killed 93 people contributed a disproportionate casualty count to the month’s bloody tally.
But in Samarra a sectarian conflict quietly boiled over today, leaving two members of the local awakenings council dead. A day prior, gunmen unloaded three bombs beside the house of Hatim al-Mansouri, head of the local pro-government, Sons of Iraq movement. Formally known as the National Council for the Awakening of Iraq, the Sons and the awakening councils are made up of predominantly Sunni Arab fighters who turned against al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) at the tail-end of 2006. Their decision to sever ties with AQI was christened the “Anbar Awakening” by Iraqi operatives, and was hailed as a critical turning point in the US war effort.
Years later (and despite the fact that a majority of violence has recently been targeted towards Iraqi Shi’as), it now appears the country’s Western Sunni Arabs are once again embattled, but their foes have taken a different shape.
Sadly, the recent charge in violence may be linked to the 2006 blast that blew apart the gilded dome of one of Shi’a Islam’s holiest shrines. The attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra, some 65 miles north of Baghdad, has reverberated for years. In the immediate aftermath, clerical leadership simultaneously rallied and reigned in their followers’ outrage at the shocking assault on a major Muslim landmark. In the years that followed, the incident dramatically escalated the vicious cycle of sectarian violence that dragged a fractured country deeper into civil war.
Although the golden dome and the minarets were restored and the shrine reopened to visitors in April, 2009, The New York Times reported at the beginning of June, 2012:
Controversy over control of a religious shrine where a 2006 bombing set off waves of sectarian killings took a new violent turn […]when a suicide car bomber struck an important Shiite religious office in central Baghdad.
The strike against the Shiite office was the deadliest single attack in the capital in nearly three months. It occurred as a dispute escalated between Sunnis and Shiites over control of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra, a largely Sunni city north of Baghdad. (Emphasis mine.)
It’s important to remember that the Askariya Shrine is claimed as holy by both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. It also exists as a distinct source of pride and commerce for many of Samarra’s Sunni citizens.
Now, rumors are rife that the government may have had some part to play in the recent bombings. That said, violence targeted at members of the government-backed awakenings councils may be viewed as retribution.
Regardless, the violence and pain caused by initial destruction of the Askariya mosque continues to fan flames of sectarian conflict in Iraq. Recent attacks hint at an unfortunate throwback to the dark days of 2006 when the country seemed on the edge complete failure.
All the while, national unity and a necessary commitment to peaceful political dialogue seem to be slipping back into the brink.