Feature

A New Attack on a Shiite Shrine Roils Iraq

What happened

The minarets at the 'œGolden Dome'' mosque in Samarra were toppled by several explosions this week, 15 months after an attack on the Shiite shrine plunged the country into an escalating cycle of sectarian revenge. Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr blamed the Iraqi government for failing to protect the already-damaged shrine, and 30 legislators affiliated with his political party announced a boycott of the parliament. American authorities blamed terrorists affiliated with al Qaida in Mesopotamia for the attack, calling it 'œa deliberate attempt to sow dissent and inflame sectarian strife among the people of Iraq.'

The attack on the shrine was seen as al Qaida's response to a new U.S. strategy for combating the terrorist group in Iraq. Al Qaida's frequent bombings of civilian targets have caused Sunni insurgent groups to turn against it, and the Pentagon is now arming and training Sunnis who once fought the U.S. to wage war against al Qaida in Anbar province. 'œThis isn't a black-and-white place,' said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch. 'œThere are good guys and bad guys, and there are groups in between.'

What the editorials said

The enemy of our enemy is not our friend, said the San Francisco Chronicle. The Sunni insurgents who are engaging in firefights with al Qaida guerillas may help in the short term, but in the not-distant future, they could easily turn their weapons on the forces of the Shiite government and on American soldiers. We are now caught in the position of arming both sides of a civil war, with our own troops caught in the middle. 'œIt's another sign—as if one was needed—of the futility of seeking military solutions to the Iraq quagmire.''

Our best hope is a political solution, said the Financial Times. After four years, Iraqis are finally inching toward a power-sharing arrangement that would give Sunnis and Shiites a common stake in their country. With continued U.S. support, 'œthe government might be able to hold the line' against chaos while the details are hammered out, 'œbut U.S. domestic backing for the commitment in Iraq is swiftly evaporating.' Iraq will need U.S. military and financial support for years to come. It may only get months.

What the columnists said

Our new strategy is already working, said Frederick Kagan in the Los Angeles Times. Sunnis are 'œrepudiating their alliance of convenience with the terrorists and risking their lives to fight with us against our worst enemies.' The policy of arming and supporting these groups nationwide is an extension of an experiment that began in Anbar province a year ago. Since that time, 'œAl Anbar has gone from hopeless to a beacon of hope.' Violence is down and tribal leaders are coming out in support of the government. 'œThis is a trend worth fighting to continue.'

Now that Iraqis are helping us fight terrorists, the worst thing we can do is abandon them, said Peter W. Rodman and William Shawcross in The New York Times. Many Americans, thinking only of their own soldiers, want to abandon Iraq to its fate, just as we once did with Vietnam. But 'œif we accept defeat,'' the Iraqi government will collapse, hundreds of thousands of people may die in the ensuing carnage, and Islamic extremists will be exultant. 'œAnyone who thinks an American defeat in Iraq will bring a merciful end to this conflict is deluded.''

So what's the alternative? asked Daniel Schorr in The Christian Science Monitor. The White House is no longer talking about a military victory, and is now comparing Iraq to South Korea, where we've had troops stationed for 54 years. But that war ended with a formal truce, said Michael Hirsh in MSNBC.com. A permanent presence in Iraq won't produce anything like the stability of South Korea. It will just mean more of what we have now: 'œa quagmire.'

What next?

U.S. officials are now planning to keep a 'œpost-occupation' force of up to 40,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely, The Washington Post reported this week. The plan is to withdraw most of the 150,000 troops currently in Iraq before President Bush leaves office, while leaving the rest to support and defend the Iraqi government over the next several decades. 'œI think you'll retain a very robust counterterrorist capability in this country for a long, long time,' said one Pentagon official.

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