I imagine you've heard by now that a cultural/religious atrocity was perpetrated recently in Iraq. The Al-Askariya Mosque, also called the 'Golden Mosque' in Samarra (north of Baghdad) used to look like this:
Following the application of high explosives by persons unknown, it now looks like this:
From what little I know about the history of Islam, this makes cartoons of Mohammed look like, well, cartoons in comparison -- particularly to Shi'ite Muslims. For a relative and probably incomplete comparison of the emotional impact, imagine if persons unknown blew up the Lincoln Memorial, except that Lincoln isn't such a revered part of our national history that we have festivals where we venerate our political leaders by whipping ourselves with barbed wire and chains. This is as close to the religious heart of a Shi'ite as you can get, it's difficult for me to think of anything more insulting except for blowing the mosque in Najaf that also holds great symbolic importance to the Shi'a.
Who did this is the subject of much speculation. 'Who benefits' would be the forensic question. The Iraqi Sunnis are outnumbered 4:1, so provoking a civil war isn't in their interests. The mosque stood in Sunni-controlled territory for a thousand years and all through Saddam's reign, it's unlikely that a local Sunni got a wild hair and decided to redecorate. It's possible a Shi'a group did this as pretext for a civil war, but that's pretty extreme and deep into 9/11 Conspiracy Theory territory. The most likely suspect is an Al-Qaeda affiliated group, for a couple of reasons. First, as extremely fundamentalist Sunnis (Salafists) they have a basic objection to any memorialization of the dead, this is a cartoon of Mohammed to them in terms of representing idolatry and shrines like this are one of the reasons they consider Shi'a infidels and apostates. Second, somebody who knew what they were doing did this, AQ doesn't lack in demolitions knowledge. Third, it lets them poke a stick in the eye of all Shi'a without any civilian casualties and to this point the car bombing hasn't worked -- and had the unintended side effect of embarassing even their putative allies in Iraq. My money is on Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi and Al Qaeda in Iraq as the operators for this job. This wouldn't be the first thing of cultural significance Islamofascists have destroyed, the Buddhas of Bamiyan was one, and not the first religious sites they attacked, they are blamed for the attacks on seven churches in Iraq on January 29, 2006.
Why this happened is pretty clear - the goal is to start a civil war between the Shi'a and Sunni. Shi'a religious festivals have been bombed for years following our invasion, and the Shi'a are taking it on the chin in terms of terrorist attacks. Al Qaeda can't function safely in a democratic environment, their goal is to eliminate governments like Iraq's budding representative one and replace them with a Taliban-like system with Salafists in charge. They benefit short-term from lawlessness and long-term from the protection and assistance of a compatible government -- and the current government of majority Shi'a and Kurds isn't to their liking.
When this happened is also important, because Iraq is currently in the process of trying to put together a national unity government comprised of Kurds, Shi'a and Sunnis, the big three demographic blocks that make up Iraq. This makes it really hard for the Shi'a political umbrella organization, the UIA, to sit at the same table with the Sunnis, and if you want a civil war (and to keep the Sunni politician from accepting the minority role that their population gives them in a democratic system) this is a pretty good way to start it. Begin a cycle of atrocity and reprisal, then back out of the way and let several hundred years of sectarian tension play out. It didn't help that the first thing the UIA did was to condemn this as a Sunni attack, now the Sunnis are angry and are waiting for an apology before going back to talks about forming the government. The voting is done, the questions revolve around who gets to head what Ministries, in particular the Interior, Defense and Oil Ministries.
The remaining question is How Iraq is going to respond to this challenge. The easy and pat answer is that a civil war will occur, the DailyKos addendum to that is "because the US intervened." Almost beyond my personal expectations and strangely in fullfillment of my hopes, this doesn't seem to be occurring. On the day of the attack there were random attacks on Sunni mosques, resulting in the deaths of at least 3 Sunni imams, but so far as I can tell, there have been no Sunni reprisals despite a reported 130 people killed in random and not-so-random violence. Sunni mosques in Baghdad were reported to be broadcasting Shi'a prayers of mourning from their speakers. There is anger, for sure, but there are encouraging signs that rather than forcing the Iraqis apart on sectarian lines, this attack is bringing them together in outrage at the people who perpetrated the attack, not each other.
The largely unsung hero in our interactions with Iraq is Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the religious leader of the Shi'a who, unlike his religious bretheren in Iran, is not seeking personal political power. His first move was to call for seven days of mourning -- and peace. He's an old, not particularly well man, and Iraq had better get a couple of power transitions under its belt before he dies or the Shi'a could be a real problem. He seems to be opposed to the Islamic Republic model that is Shi'a practice in Iran, and quite frankly one Islamic Republic on the model of Iran is plenty. The one good thing about being Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the President of Iran, is that you don't have to think too much about who to blame for any tragedy, the stock answer is "Zionists and occupiers". Good to know he's got the school solution down on that one.
I remain hopeful and prayerful that this attack will demonstrate the futility and waste that will accompany a civil war. This will be only the first mosque blown to bits if there is a civil war, I would hope everyone there would take a minute to consider that, and who their enemy really is. More 'Iraqis' and fewer hyphenated variants would do everybody some good.