Game On?

Men dressed as Iraqi police commandos slipped into Samarra’s shrine of Imam Hasan al-Askari last night, set explosive and blew it up this morning, causing the golden dome to collapse and with it, hopes for a national unity government.

BAGHDAD — Men dressed as Iraqi police commandos slipped into Samarra’s shrine of Imam Hasan al-Askari last night, set explosive and blew it up this morning, causing the golden dome to collapse and with it, hopes for a national unity government.

(How important is the Al-Askari shrine? It’s one of the holiest shrines for Shi’a Muslims because Hasan al-Askari is the father of the 12th Imam, or the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure for Muslims world-wide. The father’s remains are buried in the Shrine.)

Violent protests are now sweeping Iraq. People from the predominantly Shi’ite Shu’lah neighborhood in western Baghdad have attacked Sunni mosques in Ghazaliya, a nearby Sunni area. Sadr City, home base for rebel cleric — and parliamentary powerbroker — Moqtada al-Sadr, has reportedly re-armed. A Shi’ite mob also reportedly killed a man in the street they said was a Salafist or Wahabbi.

In Basrah, there are reports of heavy street fighting between Sunni and Shi’ite gunmen, and Sunni political party offices have been attacked. There are reports of attacks on a British and Danish base in Basra, but no reports of casualties yet.

This all happened when I was in the Green Zone today to interview Lt. Gen. Dempsey, commander of the training command. He cancelled his interview, which baffled his poor public affairs office. He commented that what was happening must be really big if Dempsey is canceling interviews as he’s usually not involved in the day-to-day war fighting details. (“He’s not in the 5-meter knife fight,” the PAO said.) Also, I saw several Apache helicopters taking off from the Green Zone, which is also unusual. Usually, it’s Blackhawks that fill the air. Other military source sources have said the Americans have scaled back all patrols, especially in Shi’ite neighborhoods.

If this doesn’t spark a much-feared civil war, we’ll be lucky. This is the tensest Baghdad has been in two years, and this attack is especially provocative coming as it does during Arba’een, the 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussayn that follows the Shi’ite commemoration of Ashura.

Of course, Sistani might still ride in and save the day — again. We can hope.

But quite apart from all that, this will derail Washington’s hopes for an inclusive Iraqi government that includes Sunnis in meaningful positions. The Shi’ite alliance in parliament is already pushing back against statements made by Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad on Monday, in which he said the security ministries (Interior and Defense) should go to “people who are non-sectarian … who do not represent or have ties to militias.” (Yeah, he’s talking to you, Badr Corps.) Yesterday, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari fired back and said, in effect, bugger off.

“When someone asks us whether we want a sectarian government the answer is ‘No, we do not want a sectarian government’ — not because the U.S. ambassador says so or issues a warning,” he told a news conference. “We think that sovereignty means no one interferes in our affairs.”

Memo to Prime Minister: That ship has sailed, habibi. I guess interference in internal Iraqi affairs is only OK when you’re the one being installed in power after riding in on the back of an American tank.

Snark aside, today’s attack will mean it will be much, much harder to make the case for including Sunnis in the government, especially if it means giving up any of the important ministries. (Maybe the Sunnis would like the Youth and Sports ministry? The Olympics are coming up in a couple of years.) And even if the Shi’ite coalition wanted to include Sunnis, today’s attack on the shrine will make it very hard to keep their constituencies loyal if they’re seen as rewarding “terrorists,” which many Shi’a now call all Sunnis.

Also significant is that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shi’ite in Iraq, called for seven days of mourning and protests — although he urged them to remain peaceful. I can’t help but wonder, “Is he serious?” This is an emotional, volatile time and any protests are likely to turn violent, either from their own accord or through agent provocateurs who might use them as kindling for more fireworks.

Outside now I can hear chanting and the occasional gun shot. There have been two deep whumps nearby, the signature of car bombs. I can hear jets over Baghdad. The situation is tense and everyone is on high alert.

UPDATES 8:43:35 PM +0300 GMT: Outraged demonstrators have burned the Sunni Waqf office in Basra. (The Waqf is the Sunni Endowment Board, and is basically a trust set up to take care of Sunni religious properties. It’s funded by the government and has an appointed head. Adnan al-Dulaimi, the head of the largest Sunni coalition in parliament was once head of Iraq’s Sunni Waqf board.)

Large demonstrations are scheduled for tomorrow at 10 a.m. Yikes.

Moqtada al-Sadr is holding takfiris (those who call others infidels, i.e., the Salafists and Wahabists), Ba’athists and the “occupation” responsible for the shrine attack. “It was not the Sunnis who attacked the shrine of imam Al-Hadi, God’s peace be upon him, but rather the occupation; the takfiris, al-nawasib (a derogatory term the Shiites use to refer to Sunnis), God damn them; and the Ba’thists. We should not attack Sunni mosques. I ordered al-Mahdi Army to protect the Shi’ite and Sunni shrines and to show a high sense of responsibility, something they actually did.” Moqtada has also called for a vote in parliament on expelling “foreign forces,” the rascal.

Al-Sistani has condemned the attack on the Askari shrine, but also said — somewhat ominously — “The Iraqi Government is expected, now more than any time before, to fully shoulder its responsibilities and halt the wave of criminal acts that target the holy places. If the government’s security organs are not capable of providing the necessary protection, the believers are capable of doing so with Almighty God’s assistance.” (emphasis added.) That’s really not good.

Airstrikes … in Baghdad

Air strikes… in Baghdad?!

BAGHDAD — So this is what all the booms were today (From a U.S. military press release):

WASHINGTON, Feb. 15, 2006 — In a joint effort, Coalition Forces conducted a precision air strike, using four U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles, against a known terrorist facility at approximately 4:30 p.m. Feb. 15 in southern Baghdad.
Terrorists were using a former Iraqi regime munitions storage bunker, located in a large, uninhabited weapons-storage complex in the Babil province, to acquire and transport bomb-making munitions to be used in attacks against the Iraqi people and Coalition Forces.
Coalition Forces participating in the mission took all available precautions to ensure no civilians were present during the strike. The aircraft conducted a clearing pass while Multi-National Division — Baghdad helicopters scanned for any civilians in the area in a deliberate effort to ensure no collateral damage.
The sorties made multiple passes to ensure the complete and methodical destruction of the bunker.

The area they’re talking about is probably al-Saha, on the other side of the neighborhood of Dora, where a major refinery is located.
I’m not sure, but I don’t recall air strikes in or near Iraq’s capital city for a long time. In fact, I can’t remember any since I got here in May 2004, although these things tend to blend together after a while. But if the war’s going so well, and the Iraqis are taking the fight to the terrorists, blah blah, why are the Americans resorting to air strikes here? That’s, like, _so_ 2003.

More from Abu Ghraib

BAGHDAD — Well, it was bound to happen. Australian papers and news shows are publishing 60 new photos from Abu Ghraib. They snapshots were attained by the American Civil Liberties Union after a federal judge ordered their release. That was delayed however because the U.S. government appealed the ruling.
And yet the photos were leaked.
That the government sat on these photos for almost two years is stupid and pointless. _Of course_ they would get out. Did they really think they wouldn’t? They should have released all of them immediately and taken their blows. (A little fit of humility or even — gasp — an apology would have been nice, too.) Even better: NOT TORTURING OR ABUSING PEOPLE TO BEGIN WITH.
These photos are already being spun as “isolated incidents” that are no longer occurring, and that may be true. The Americans may be “scared straight” by the reaction around the Muslim world to the photos.
Alas, the same can’t be said for their allies in the Iraqi government whose Shi’ite-dominated security forces are torturing Sunni men to death and dumping their bodies at sewage plants in southeast Baghdad. Yeah, at least the U.S. never did that.
God, how did the bar get set so low?
These photos come at a bad time, obviously. The Danish cartoon furor is still going on and the British have been caught on video beating the snot out of teenagers in Basra. This will do little to calm things down. And I don’t even want to think how this may complicate things with Jill Carroll, the American journalist currently being held in Iraq. (I’m not sure what to make of this report, though, in which Iraqi officials say the United States actually “delayed the release of several women”: prisoners — the key demand of Carroll’s kidnappers — so as not to appear to be negotiating with terrorists. _Disclaimer: Jill is a friend of mine and I know her pretty well._)
But this is just par for the course for this administration. When faced with choosing between secrecy and openness, stubbornness and a willingness to get things done, the Bush people will always choose the secret, stubborn path — even if the easy thing to do is also the right thing to do. If they can’t turn back the clock and undo the torture at Abu Ghraib, then by all means come clean and get it out of the way. When faced with the kidnapping of an American civilian, they could get her out by either speeding up prisoner releases or at least not impeding it. They were going to happen anyway! In both cases, doing the right thing is, well, the right thing to do and it’s good politics.
But that’s too complicated for these guys.

“The Anger of God”: Al Qaeda claimed Hamra bombing

I found the video claim of responsibility for the Hamra bombing back in November. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization, Al Qaeda in Iraq, did the operation in the name of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the “blind sheikh” currently in prison for his role in a plot to blow up New York City landmarks.


BAGHDAD — Following up on my “previous entry”:, I found the “video claim of responsibility”: (60MB, RealVideo, sorry) for the Hamra bombing “back in November”: It’s all in Arabic, but it’s pretty typical _jihadi_ video stuff, albeit with better production values than I’ve seen usually.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s organization, Al Qaeda in Iraq, did the operation in the name of “Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman”:, the “blind sheikh” currently in prison for his role in a plot to blow up New York City landmarks. Early in the morning on Nov. 18, two white vans laden with explosives approached the back wall of the Hamra compound. The first one, driven by Abu Ayub al-Iraqi, was to clear a path for the second van. In the video, the bomb-makers claim to have loaded the second van with 2.5 _tons_ of explosives, but I find this doubtful. You can see, however, that they used a number of 155mm artillery shells.

Abu Abdul Malik al-Najdi, a Saudi, drove the second van. Alongside him was Abu Samain al-Tunisi, from Tunisia, who carried a Russian machine gun to shoot any guards who arrived at the scene of the first bombing and tried to prevent the second bomb from getting to the heart of the compound. This means they learned from the “unsuccessful Palestine Bombing in October”:, when the van carrying the main payload came under fire and was, possibly, stopped because the driver was shot.

Also, you can see that they make use of the latest open-source intelligence, mainly Google maps. In one part of the video, the plotters are shown poring over printouts of the neighborhood, marking routes of access. They look exactly like Google maps. The maps are also later used to show the planned points of attack.

Why attack the compound? The video claims it was in retaliation for the torture of Sunnis at the hands of the Shi’ite-led Ministry of Interior as well as for the deaths of Iraqi officers by Americans interrogators. They also saw the compound as a den of foreign intelligence, the Badr Brigade and housing for Kurdish _pesh merga_ and Western security companies. The attack also was billed a success in the video: “It was the anger of God to heal the hearts of believers,” the video proclaims. It ends with a recording of someone who is claimed to be Zarqawi himself: “To the Islamic nation, we promise you we will continue fighting until the last drop of blood.”

This claim of responsibility is unusual in that it came in January, two months after the attack. It’s possible the delay is because of the relative failure of the attack. Only Iraqi civilians were killed or injured and the second bomb didn’t make it to its intended target. Whether that means al Qaeda will come back as they usually do after initial failures is still unclear.

Aftermath of the Hamra Bombing

Bloodstains on the Hamra walls
(Originally uploaded by Baghdad Chris).

BAGHDAD — I finally made it over to where the bombing of the “Hamra Hotel occurred in November”: The building is being repaired, but it’s still grim inside. Bloodstains still adorn the walls where fleeing residents pressed their hands against the wall for support as they tumbled down the stairs. Ceilings are still caved in. And the house that bore the brunt of the blast is simply gone, with nothing more to mark it but a gap and a pile of bricks. Surrounding homes had their facades sheared off.
All those people died.
It’s a grim reminder of what dangers exist for us in Iraq every day. And by “us” I don’t mean just journalists or foreigners, but I mean every person in Iraq. (More photos “here”: