An attack Wednesday that destroyed the soaring gold dome of one of ShiiteIslam’s holiest shrines is being interpreted by most Shiites here as a direct attack on their faith - and has sharply raised sectarian tensions
The attack occurred shortly before 7 a.m. in the largely Sunni city of Samarra, which has remained an insurgent hotbed despite years of US operations there. It was carried out by a small group of men who somehow gained access to the usually heavily protected Askariya shrine, set demolition explosives, and then fled
The city’s history is also wound up with an age-old Sunni-Shiite rivalry, as well as with the apocalyptic beliefs of many Shiite clerics, like Sadr. The shrine contains the tombs of Ali al-Hadi and his son Hasan al-Askari, the 10th and 11th imams of Shiite Islam who died in the 9th century. Legend has it that Askari’s son, Muhammad al-Mahdi, was born in the city. It is one of four main Shiite pilgrimage sites in Iraq.
Mahdi was the 12th and final of the Shiite imams. Legend has it that he was “occulted” by God before his death, and will return to earth to bring an era of justice and peace, followed by the end of the world. Sadr’s militia is named for this imam.
Sadr and his followers are convinced that the time for the Mahdi’s return is close. "He disappeared into a supernatural realm from there … so this will be interpreted as an attack on the imam al-Mahdi, an attack on their guy; so for the Sadr people it’s an apocalyptic moment,’’ says Cole. “There will be reprisals.”
Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most respected cleric, issued a statement forbidding attacks on Sunni mosques and calling for seven days of national mourning. But in a rare move, he also called for public protests. Ayatollah Sistani has typically called for even peaceful protesters to stay off the streets, fearing a downward spiral into violence.
Ayatollah Sistani "has the coolest and wisest head in Iraq, but this has chaos written all over it,’’ says Mr. Cole. “He must know the likelihood of these protests being completely peaceful is low, so he’s got to be absolutely furious to call for people to come out on the streets.”
Things just keep looking worse over there.