- The Washington Times - Friday, February 24, 2006

In the wake of bombing of the Askariya Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest shrines to Shi’ite Muslims, and the ensuing bloodshed, Iraq is entering one of its most dark and challenging periods since the ouster of Saddam Hussein nearly three years ago.

All indications are that the bombing was carried out by al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group headed by Sunni Muslim Abu Musab Zarqawi, who has declared “all-out war” on the country’s Shi’ite population and has stated his intention to ignite sectarian violence in Iraq.

Most striking are the differences between the reactions to the violence from the Iranian government and the Iraqi Shi’ite leadership. Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani responded in characteristically statesmanlike fashion by calling for calm (although he warned that if Iraqi security forces were not up to the job of protecting Iraqis, that militias would step in to do the job), as did Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by contrast, sought to inflame the situation by blaming the mosque attack on “Zionists” and coalition forces.

The bombing comes at a very delicate time for Iraq. On Monday, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad warned that Washington might reduce financial assistance to an Iraqi government that was dominated by sectarian groups and would not support institutions run by sectarian groups with links to militias. In response to Mr. Khalilzad’s very accurate assessment of the political situation, a prominent Iraqi Shi’ite power broker, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (and former commander of its militia) cynically tried to suggest that Washington was partly to blame for the attack. He said the United States bears some of the responsibility because it had urged the Shi’ite-dominated government to broaden its base by including more members of the country’s Sunni minority.

To be certain, a fair case can be made that Washington should be wary of going too far to placate the Sunnis, who formed the backbone of political support for Saddam and the terrorist insurgency. But terrorists destroyed the Shi’ite holy place, not U.S. forces. And Iraq’s interior minister, who controls the security forces that are responsible for maintaining public order in the country, is a member of Mr. al-Hakim’s own SCIRI party. And as has been previously reported by Sharon Behn of this newspaper, the Interior Ministry has been implicated in the systematic torture and murder of Sunni detainees in Iraqi prisons.

Responsible Iraqi leaders, both Shi’ite and Sunni, need to act decisively against the torturers in their prisons and the terrorists who are trying to make the country ungovernable, instead of scapegoating Washington for their problems.

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