The coordinated slaughter Tuesday, March 2, of Iraqi Shiite Muslims at Kazimiya, their largest shrine in Baghdad, and the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala, marked several milestones in Iraqi’s post-Saddam history of violence. Most of all, it was the bloodiest by far. Two days later, the death toll was still climbing past the 200 mark. Several hundred more were injured. The last multiple-casualty suicide attack, staged by suicide killers on February 1 at Kurdish centers in Irbil, accounted for 109 deaths, including government officials. Just as that outrage was timed for the Feast of Sacrifice, the half a dozen suicide attacks 30 days later were planned for the climactic finale of the most important annual Shiite Muslim festival. Banned for three decades, this year’s Ashura was bound to attract millions of worshippers and pilgrims.
The operational infrastructure exposed in the execution of this latest atrocity is a great dealer larger and more elaborate than the one that orchestrated the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts, Al Qaeda has preserved its strength and capabilities despite being chased from pillar to post in the US global war on terrorism. This is attested to by the sheer scale of the attacks, the clockwork coordination of units operating synchronously in two Iraqi cities 50 miles apart and two countries – gunmen struck down a Shiite procession in the south Pakistani town of Quetta on the same day – proof of wide-ranging logistical and planning skills
Al Qaeda’s extended range was further revealed by General John Abizaid, head of US Central Command, in testimony given the next day to the House Armed Services Committee in Washington. The night before the attacks in Baghdad and Karbala, he reported, US forces raided a number of terrorist cells run by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the al Qaeda operative who has masterminded most of the large-scale terrorist attacks in the region in the last six months from his base in northern Iran. These raids, said the general, “probably prevented even further carnage.” He was referring to the third Iraqi city, Basra, which was to have been targeted at the same time and assassination plots against several key Shiite figures.
Abizaid’s testimony considerably inflates the initial assessment made by DEBKAfile’s counter-terrorism experts, of the number of people who participated in the preparation and execution of the suicide attacks against the Shiites. Since their scale would be analogous to a “9/11 + operation (New York’s Trade Center plus its main tunnels and bridges), the more realistic estimate would be 600 to 700 terrorists and back-up personnel, rather than the first estimate of 200 to 300.
It is the consensus of DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts that the massive assault on the Shiites on their holy day, the Ashura, at their most revered shrines, must have been decided at the highest al Qaeda level, none other than Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Egyptian Islamic Jihad leader Ayman Zawahiri. That conclusion has important Islamic ramifications that Iraqi Shiites were quick to grasp. The immediate hysterical response of Shiites interviewed after the attacks – even before venting their rage against the Americans – was: “”The Wahhabis have done this!” They were referring to the rigidly puritan Sunni sect and state religion of the Saudi kingdom, with whom many Shiites identify al Qaeda.
The Saudi-born Bin Laden is clearly taking large strides toward claiming the Sunni Wahhabi leadership, tantamount to the spiritual – and why not the temporal? – Saudi throne.
Our experts expect him to eventually publish the fatwa, or religious edict that compelled Suni Muslim fighters to blow themselves up at Shiite shrines filled with hordes of worshippers. By this action, he will demonstrate he is following in the footsteps of the movement’s 18th century founder Abu Wahhab, who commanded his followers to commit savage massacres in Karbala and its twin Shiite holy city, Najef. This atrocity is burnt deep in the universal Shiite consciousness.
While Shiites are the largest community in Iraq – 60 percent of its population – they are a minority, 14 percent of all Muslims, as against the majority Sunnis.
This week’s assault by the Sunni-led al Qaeda is seen by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Islamic experts as the prelude to the eruption of all-out war between Sunni and Shiite before the end of 2004 or early 2005. This conflict may define the fate of Iraq and the future of Muslim countries to which it spreads, but also bears a strong potential for rearranging alliances within the terrorist movement.
For example, Gulbudin Hekmatyar, leader of the fundamentalist Sunni-Pashtun Hezb-e-Islami terrorist group that serves as al Qaeda’s main operational arm in southern Afghanistan, may be stripped of the intelligence support provided by Shiite Iran.
For its part, Iran will have lost a key proxy in Afghanistan.
And in Lebanon, Hizballah may be forced to sever its intimate operational give and take with the Sunni-dominated Palestinian security services. Iran and the Hizballah spent years and millions to build bridges to the Palestinians, pouring arms and money into the eagerly outstretched hands of their ally. It could all go down the drain quite simply because the Iranians and Hizballah are Shiite Muslims and Palestinian Muslims belong to the Sunni faith.
Stranded in a Sunni sea, Hizballah may also be forced to break off its ties with the Afghan Taliban and withdraw its fighters from the Iraqi Baath Party’s terrorist cells.
Al Qaeda put the blame for Tuesday’s attacks at America’s door as an exercise in misdirection. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism sources have obtained a transcript of the directives issued to the terrorist cells assigned their murderous missions in Baghdad and Karbala by their commander, Abu Abdallah al-Hassan Bin-Mahmoud, head of the Ansar al-Suna Army:
“Sons of Suna, as you know the Shiites have yet to fire even a single shot at the heretics (the Americans) still pouring into our Muslim country,” he said. “Their shameful behavior should come as no surprise. We thank Allah that He has not awarded the Shiites any role in the blessed Jihad (suicide attacks) or in its reward (Paradise) and its multitude of virgins. It is only natural for that sect to stand with the heretics against the Suna faithful, the servants of the Prophet – and history will bear this out. Thank God the Shiites are not our partners in war. We need not wait for them any longer. The time has come to fight them.”
It was Iraqi Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani‘s decision, two days before the attacks, to order the Shiite members of the Iraq Governing Council to sign a compromise interim draft constitution not based on Shari’ a, or Islamic law, that fueled the wrath of al Qaeda and brought its retribution down on his community on the Ashura festival. In al Qaeda's eyes, the Shiites had entered into a blasphemous transaction and thereby proclaimed themselves “Ridda” – a people who embraced Islam and then rejected it. The penalty for this abomination is death.
The Muslim world was severely rattled in the after-shock of the Karbala and Baghdad atrocities. Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Kuwait and Bahrain lost no time in imposing a state of national emergency.
As soon as they heard of the attacks, the Saudis, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, dispatched large troop contingents by road and air to the Shiite centers of Hasa and Katif in the Eastern Provinces. They were placed under military siege to prevent al Qaeda units from carrying out Iraq-style attacks and local Shiites from heading into Sunni regions in search of revenge.
Pakistan carried out similar military deployments at Shiite centers, both as protection and to head off Shiite revenge attacks against Sunnis. The action on president Pervez Musharraf's orders came too late. A Shiite procession in the southern city of Quetta was attacked at the same time as the suicide bombings in Iraq. Here, Al Qaeda added a different twist: instead of suicide bombers, gunmen let rip with machine guns against the celebrants, some of whom fired back from concealed automatic weapons. The official death toll was put at 43, including three assailants. Our sources believe 65 is a more realistic estimate. The Shiites went on an instantaneous rampage against Quetta’s Sunnis and the town had to be placed under curfew before calm was restored.
While Shiites were under attack in Quetta, further to the mountainous north along the Afghan border, some 20,000 Pakistani soldiers and 10,000 US troops were advancing their “hammer and anvil” operation in pursuit of al Qaeda and Taliban forces.
(A separate article in this issue analyses Musharraf double game with regard to the capture of bin Laden and Zawahiri).
The carnage in Quetta carried a defiant warning from al Qaeda to Musharraf that the group retains sufficient resources and supporters to open new fronts against the Pakistani army while at the same time doing battle in the western mountains of Pakistan.
In Bahrain, which has a Shiite majority like Iraq, and in Kuwait, which has large concentrations of Shiites, the army and security services went on red alert.
These movements offered a grim glimpse into a future of Sunni-Shiite violence, a war fought by assassinations and terrorist massacres, on the one hand, and counteraction by political leaders and military commanders, on the other.. Its resolution will predetermine the next stage of the Muslim world’s evolution.
In Saudi Arabia, where native Shiites regard the House of Saud and al Qaeda as two sides of the same feared and hated Wahhabi coin, the rulers in Riyadh will have to decide, like Musharraf in Pakistan, how best to utilize their army and intelligence to damp down two counter-poised threats to national stability: bin Laden’s group and the restive Shiites.