February 22, 2006

Iraq - Attack on Major Shi'a Shrine in Samarra'

AP Photo - Damaged Al-'Askari Mosque in Samarra'
Damaged Al-'Askari Mosque in Samarra'

On February 22, a group of insurgents mounted an attack on the Al-'Askari Mosque (also known as the Golden Mosque or Al-Hadi Mosque) in Samarra'. The attackers placed explosives on the 100-year old dome, causing severe damage. This attack was most likely the work of the Abu Mus'ab Az-Zarqawi faction - it is in keeping with his stated goal to start a civil war between the Sunni and the Shi'a. Although this is but one in a series of attacks Shi'a houses of worship, this one takes on special significance - this is a major shrine.

Al-'Askari Mosque in Samarra'
Al-'Askari Mosque Before February 22 Attack

Samarra' is located in the Sunni triangle about 75 miles north of Baghda - it is one of the four Shi'a holy cities in Iraq, along with An-Najaf, Karbala' and Baghdad. The main shrine is the Golden Mosque, also known as the Imam 'Ali al-Hadi and Imam Hasan Al-'Askari mosque, named for the 10th and 11th imams of Shi'a Islam and two of the "14 Infallibles." The two ninth-century imams are buried in the mosque.

Samarra' is also the birthplace of the twelfth imam, Imam Muhammad Al-Mahdi (and son of 11th Imam Hasan Al-'Askari). His shrine - not his tomb - is adjacent to the Golden Mosque. It is not his tomb, because in "Twelver" Shi'a, so named for the 12th imam, it is believed that he is still alive but in hiding and will return prior to the day of judgment to establish justice on earth. Twelver Shi'a are dominant in Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon - it is the main sect of Shi'a Islam.

Samarra' is also the site of a historic Sunni mosque with the famed spiral minaret - the "Malwiya" - (165 feet high), dating from the 9th century. It was also attacked last year, but damage was minimal.

Although Grand Ayatollah 'Ali As-Saystani has called for calm and forbidden attacks on Sunni mosques, Shi'a groups have begun retaliatory attacks on some Sunni mosques.

There is a history of sectarian violence on Fridays, the Muslim holy day. This Friday might prove to be particularly bloody. American and Iraqi forces have already began increased security around mosques in anticipation of violence.