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Iraq: After Askariya
Iraq invasion enters its final, most horrific act, says Firas Al-Atraqchi
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."