Every now and then I get a chance to fly to the city of Samarra, along the Tigris River. Flying into Samarra is always a special treat, allowing us the opportunity to skim just a few feet over the same waters that gave birth to human civilization. The city is ringed by ancient ruins, most dating back to the Abbasid period, during which the Mesopotamian region—and Baghdad in particular—represented the pinnacle of human achievement. When London was a mere village, and the Americas were largely uninhabited, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates river produced splendid cities and magnificent universities.
One of the greatest jewels in the crown of the Abbasid Empire was the city of Samarra, which literally means “a joy for all who see” in Arabic. Chief among the wonderful sights in this city is a beautiful spiral minaret in the northern portion of the city, flanked by a mosque with a golden dome—the al-Askari Mosque, which contains two smaller golden minarets. This mosque contains the mausoleums of the tenth and eleventh Shia Imams, and is one of the holiest Shia sites. It was recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
However, a tragedy struck the city of Samarra. In February of 2006, bombers linked to al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) overpowered the guards in the mosque, and set off tremendous bombs, destroying two of the golden minarets, and collapsing the golden dome in the mosque. By al Qaeda in Iraq’s design, the attack was meant to set off a wave of repercussions, as the dominant Shia forces sought retaliation against the Sunnis, whom they largely blamed for the attacks. This sparked a cycle of violence which resulted in further instability in the region, and contributed to the violence which nearly crippled the Coalition’s war effort.
We throw around words “terrorist” and “insurgent” quite a bit. Earlier in the war, Soldiers were often frustrated and confused as to why the military would switch between the two terms in describing the conflict in Iraq. But there is actually an important difference.
Insurgents can be enemies, no doubt about it, but they’re understandable. They want to take control of a country’s government for their own purposes. Terrorists are something completely different. They may have an ideology, but they want no part in government itself. They simply seek to sow chaos and confusion.
In 2008, his was summed up by a line from the character Alfred from the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight:
But, following the Surge of 2007, US and Iraqi forces have been able to restore a modest measure of security to the region, particularly in Samarra. Indeed, recently, as I flew over Samarra, I couldn’t help but notice that cranes were scattered about the remnants of the golden minarets, and tiny construction crews scurried about, attempting to rebuild the shattered golden dome. The February pilgrimage to Samarra went off with relatively few hitches.
The US basically fought a number of wars simultaneously in Iraq—a war against insurgents, a war against terrorist groups, and a war to prevent ethnic violence. By 2009, the US and Iraq had basically knocked out two legs of this deadly pyramid—insurgency and terrorism—but the potential for sectarian conflict still remains, and it casts a large shadow over much of the progress in Iraq.
Shia-Sunni conflict in Iraq dates back at least eight hundred years to the Mongol sack of Baghdad. At that time, Baghdad was the most advanced city in the entire world. However, the Mongols, during their expansionary period, approached Baghdad and offered the Caliph—a Sunni—the choice of paying tribute or having his city destroyed. The Caliph of Baghdad felt that his own army was far more powerful than that of the Mongols, and refused to pay tribute. However, one of the Caliph’s ministers, a Shia, gave the Mongols the plans to the city, in the hopes that the Mongols would re-instate him as the new ruler.
The Mongols laid waste to the city, inflicting damage from which, some experts (i.e., Hodgson in The Venture of Islam) claim that Baghdad never recovered from. The Mongols captured the Caliph and, respecting the custom of not allowing royal blood to be spilled on the ground, rolled the Caliph in a carpet and trampled his body to death with their horses. The Mongols smashed the local irrigation systems, which went hundreds of years without being repaired. The Sack of Baghdad only added to the fury in Sunni and Shia relations.
The Surge was never meant to be a final solution to Iraq. For everything it accomplished in the realm of security, it can not change many of the fundamental issues of Iraq’s segmented society. The Surge was only meant to buy time for a political deal to occur between all parties. With economic turmoil at home and a military stretched to the breaking point, the US is going to have to leave the Iraqi people to make the key decisions about issues like which ethnic group will dominate the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
The million-dollar question is: Are the power brokers in Iraq up to the challenge? It looks as if we’ll find out as we begin to play a high-stakes game of “Jenga” this summer as the US begins slowly withdrawing from the cities.