Update 25 February 12:00 GMT
Iraq invasion enters its final, most horrific act, says Firas Al-Atraqchi
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The Askariya shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, is seen in these two pictures dated Feb. 2, 2004, left, and Feb. 22, 2006. Assailants wearing uniforms detonated two bombs inside one of Iraq's most revered Shiite shrines Wednesday, blowing the top off its landmark golden dome and spawning mass protests and reprisal attacks against dozens of Sunni mosques
When Operation Bodyguard was launched ahead of D-Day on June 6, 1944, the military planners said: "In times of war, truth is protected by a bodyguard of lies".
This was in reference to the feint which deceived Hitler's forces and paved the way for the allied landings on the beaches of Normandy.
Today, that sentiment holds as true as ever, particularly when it comes to the question of timing and identity of the perpetrators of the criminal attack on the Askariya mosque in the Iraqi city of Sammara.
First, the timing.
Since Iraqis went to the polls on December 15, there has been political friction between the various parties -- the Sunnis accusing the Shia of massive fraud -- which permeated a sense of tension in the air.
In the two months since the polls, no viable government has been created. Two weeks prior to the Askariya mosque bombing, the Shia, Kurd and Sunni parties huddled together to form a government.
Almost immediately, the US administration intervened to ensure that a more "inclusive", non-sectarian government would be formed. The pressure for the US to succeed in Iraq has diverted attention to keeping Iran out of Iraqi affairs.
After Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Saud ?Al-Faisal chided the US for handing Iraq over to Iran last September, there has been a subtle policy shift in the US approach to Iraq as well as coverage of events in the media.
No longer do we hear of "insurgents", but US media has gone to great lengths recently to distinguish between Al-Qaida forces and Iraqi resistance groups, often depicting the two in pitch battles against each other.
Then came the revelations of torture chambers operated by "elements" in the Shia-led Interior Ministry and the free roaming death squads, who, US forces say, are loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army.
In the few days immediately prior to the mosque attack we saw the following flurry of activity:
Muqtada Sadr, fresh from a visit to Iran, gives former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafary the needed vote to retain his post in the new permanent four-year government. However, he also said that he rejected the current constitution and believed federalism (the context which the Kurds have insisted be included) should be rejected.
He also called on US forces to withdraw immediately just before embarking on a diplomatic tour of Arab capitals.
In the meantime, US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad began to up the ante by insisting that the Sunni bloc (numbering 55 in the 275-member legislature) be given more power. Reports had indicated that the US had wanted to see former premier Iyad Allawi as the next prime minister.
All of a sudden, Jaafari's promised post did not seem as assured.
US media also increased the pressure as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, among others, reported on the death squads affiliated with the Iraqi Interior Ministry. When the Ministry did not budge on the issue, US media quoted US military sources saying some 1500 highway police could also be part of an extended death squad network.
Four days before the Askariya bombing, US media reported that 400 members (including senior level) of the Interior Ministry were themselves under investigation for allegations ranging from corruption to involvement in running torture chambers and operating death squads.
Two days prior to the Askariya bombing, UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw arrived in Baghdad to help ratchet up the pressure on Jaafari and his Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution (SCIRI) allies in the government.
Iran, the main SCIRI-backer, reiterated its position that UK forces should completely withdraw from the south of Iraq after the video of British troops beating Iraqi children. The logic goes that once the UK troops withdraw, security would be handled by armed militia in the south -- Badr Organization (SCIRI's armed wing) and the Mehdi Army.
Khalilzad in turn accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs in the strongest terms yet accusing Tehran of a "comprehensive strategy ... by a player seeking regional pre-eminence".
Of course, his statements -- made a day before the shrine attack - also alluded to the ongoing breakdown in talks over Iran's nuclear ambitions. He also took a swipe at Iraq's diplomatic relations with Iran (brokered by none other than Jaafari in Tehran in early 2005) saying it was governed by a policy "to work with militias, to work with extremist groups, to provide training and weapons."
Less than 12 hours later, the Askariya Mosque in Sammara was partially destroyed with the 1200-year shrine gutted.
As Sunni mosques were burned in reprisal attacks and Sunnis were gunned down in the streets, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of SCIRI and the Badr Organization which has come under so much pressure from the Americans, lashed out against Khalilzad.
"For sure, the statements made by the ambassador were not made in a responsible way and he did not behave like an ambassador," al-Hakim told reporters. "These statements were the reason for more pressure and gave green lights to terrorist groups. And, therefore, he shares in part of the responsibility."
It is important to note here that Hakim had been asking US forces to relinquish security control to his forces, despite the evidence piling up against his Badr Organization of running death squads and torture chambers.
As hundreds of Sunni mosques came under attack, Iranian cleric in Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on the Shia community to protest the attack on the shrine, but to remain restrained.
He also made a veiled threat against the Americans, which was significantly downplayed in US media. He said if US forces could not maintain security of holy shrines, his own forces would take over. It is unknown whether he was directly referring to his own militia, Ansar Sistani, the Mehdi Army, or Badr.
The importance of this statement cannot be emphasised enough as it comes after much US pressure regarding death squads, Hakim's demand for more control of security, and Iran's call for a withdrawal of UK troops.
Protection ofthe Askariya mosque in Sammara is becoming a major issue as Iraqis attempt to understand who would mount such a villainous attack on a Shrine revered by both Shia and Sunni.
Sammara itself is a predominantly Sunni city and the Askariya Mosque falls under the Sunni Endowment, a government body that caters to the needs of Sunni mosques and religious establishments throughout the country.
During its 100-year existence, the Askariya Mosque, housing the 1200-year shrine, was never attacked. The Sunni population of Sammara took particular pride in its care, a symbol of Shia-Sunni brotherhood.
Sammara is the site of the disappearance of the 12th and last Imam -- Mohammed al-Mahdi, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. It is said he will return to restore justice to the world.
In addition to Najaf and Karbala, Sammara is also a destination for Shia pilgrims from around the world.
But Sammara itself has been a center of conflict. It has been "won" and lost by US forces battling Al-Qaida in Iraq several times. In the last round of conflict, the US military had congratulated itself for pacifying the city.
On Friday, as a general curfew managed to secure some parts of Baghdad, Iraqi officials said the attack on the shrine was the work of "specialists".
Construction Minister Jassem Mohammed Jaafar, who toured Sammara and inspected the damage incurred to the shrine, said the placing of explosives inside the dome was meticulous and must have taken at least 12 hours.
"Holes were dug into the mausoleum's four main pillars and packed with explosives," he told the media, adding that work on each pillar must have taken at least four hours.
This is an astounding statement to make. This means that the perpetrators had free rein for much of the time to carry out their heinous crime.
How did they get access to the shrine in the first place?
Initial reports said that four men, one donning Interior Ministry commando garb, stormed the Shrine after dawn prayers on Wednesday, took the five guards hostage, and fled before detonating their explosive charge.
They released the guards and mingled with worshippers for the Fajr prayers before slipping out.
Reports later said that the attackers were 10 men dressed in commando outfits and that they had been apprehended.
The shrine is meant to be protected by a contingent of 35 Interior Ministry troops because the Mosque is of particular importance to the Shia community.
Questions abound. Why was the security detail reduced from 35 to only five men guarding such an important shrine?
If it took at least 12 hours to plant the explosives, why did no one notice that the five police guards had been taken hostage?
If it took at least 12 hours to plant the explosives, would that not have meant access to the shrine during evening prayers the night before?
Iraqi journalist executed
Hoping to find answers and interview residents of Sammara, the Al-Arabiya news network dispatched three of its journalists, including former Aljazeera reporter Atwar Bahjat, herself a native of the ancient city.
Sources in Iraq say she was interviewing residents when a truck full of unknown armed men abducted her as she screamed for help. Bahjat, 30, of mixed Sunni-Shia heritage, was found executed outside Sammara, along with her cameraman and sound technician. Her field equipment and video were missing.
Iraqi websites have surmised as to why Bahjat was so brutally murdered and what became of her video material.
According to Iraqi blogger Zeyad of Healing Iraq, quoting other Iraqi sources, Bahjat had been filming the arrest of two Iranians in Sammara who were let go when Interior Minister Baqer Jabr arrived on the scene.
This has not been independently verified.
Sammara eyewitness, however, have published accounts on various websites, like Iraqirabita.org, saying US and Iraqi forces had sealed off access ways to the Shrine the night prior to the explosion. Some have said that Bahjat had interviewed some of these eyewitnesses.
This also could not be independently verified.
But what can be verified is that Iraq is the focus of a conspiracy as President Jalal Talabani rightly said. The conspiracy is to tear Iraq at the seams and pit sectarian differences into a diabolical civil war.
As I write this, I am getting reports from Iraq that Sunni neighbourhoods have formed clusters of militia to protect the mosques, some 196 of which have been attacked, destroyed or razed to the ground. Iraqi sources are saying that despite Sadr's statements that Sunnis should not be targeted by his militia, they have continued to attack, kidnap and torture those they suspect of being Sunni.
Who benefits from this? Who benefits from a civil war in Iraq and the killing of tens of thousands?
Have Iraqis not warned that the current government was at best incompetent and at worst complicit in further widening the gap between the various Iraqi sects and religions?
During his visit earlier this year to Iran, Sadr pledged he would support and defend Iran if it were attacked by the US. As talk of an imminent attack on Iranian nuclear facilities escalated, Iranian officials dropped hints that Iraq would be turned into a hellhole for the Americans before they could ever mount an attack against Iran.
Iraq is the battlefield in which Iranian and US interests are currently being played out.
Iraq is on the edge of an abyss, one many Iraqis fear looking into. However, they may have to in order to realize the gravity of their situation. If they do not find a medium approach to resolving their political differences and ensuring that militia are rendered impotent, Iran may very well have won the US invasion of Iraq.