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.