A few weeks ago, I wrote a short and wistfully hopeful blog entry marking the relatively uneventful passing of Ashura, the Shi'ite commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn, in Iraq. I there noted that for the first time in two years, Sunni suicide bombers had not wreaked carnage upon the Shi'ite processionals.
Then came Samarra. One cannot overdramatize the significance of the bombing of the golden-domed Askariyya mosque on Wednesday. It is on a par with the assault on the Ka'aba by the Qarmathians in 930, who committed a slaughter and then successfully carried off the sacred Black Stone. More recently, it can be likened to the arson attack on the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in 1969, when a delusional Australian tourist set fire to the structure. To this day, Muslims around the world still bitterly recall the event, and the sinister conspiratorial theories that still hold Israel complicit in the crime.
Entombed in the mosque are the tenth and eleventh imams in the Shi'ite genealogy of sainted leaders, or imams. For the majority of Shi'ites who adhere to the the lineage of the twelfth and occulted imam, this mosque is of supreme importance. Samarra, located 125 km north of Baghdad, was briefly in the ninth century the capital of the far-flung Abbasid empire. After it was abandoned by the Abbasids for Baghdad, Samarra became a pilgrimage site for Shi'ites beginning in the 10th century, as a result of the presence of the tombs of these two revered men. The mosque thus is one of the holiest shrines in all of Twelver Shi'ism.
The resulting mayhem of the last few days has put the entire country into a state of siege. Veteran Iraq correspondent Anne Garrels of NPR stated tonight that the talk of civil war is on everyone's lips. On a smaller scale, this is reminiscent of the 1928 Yom Kippur incident at the Western Wall of the Temple in Jerusalem, which led to country-wide intercommunal violence in British Mandatory Palestine in the spring of 1929. The brutal events of 1929 prompted a British commission of inquiry to conclude that the Mandate was unworkable, but it would take 17 years (and another bloody confrontation of even greater carnage between 1936-39), for the British to finally withdraw from Palestine under UN cover. The debates in American society over the continued presence of American forces in Iraq are thus paralleled by the discussions in Britain over the viability of the Mandate in the 1930s. Britain poured troops into Palestine, to no avail. In present-day Iraq, the writing is on the wall -- there is nothing that the US can do to stop this intercommunal violence.
A few years ago, I asked my students at the outset of the Iraq invasion to write a short paper on the future of Iraq. The preponderant majority of my students recommended dividing present-day Iraq into its three former Ottoman provinces -- Kurdish Mosul, Sunni Baghdad, and Shi'ite Basra -- as sovereign states. Bumbling every step of the way, overwhelmed by motivations it cannot comprehend, America has done everything it is capable of doing to try to preserve the artifice of "Iraq." It is time to consider partition. In 1947, the Zionists reluctantly but pragmatically accepted the partition plan, while the Arabs rejected it. In 2006, I think that all sides could accept the fissioning of Iraq. Better to make the breakup of Iraq a normalized diplomatic process than to allow it to crack apart in anarchy, with the US blamed for letting it all go to hell.