The nearly 1,000 Shiite deaths at Baghdad’s Imam Mousa al Kadhim shrine Wednesday, August 31, were caused primarily by a deliberate terrorist plot laid by al Qaeda’s Iraq commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The ensuing stampede was a side effect – not the cause – but it lent the attack a dimension beyond the Jordanian terrorist’s expectations.
Amid the mass Shiite mourning, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources describe the aftermath of the attack as touch and go; one more finger raised against a Shiite could tip Iraq into a full-blown civil war between Shiites and Sunnis that would smash American achievements. President George W. Bush would face a harsh dilemma between ordering US forces to stand aside from the bloodshed, instructing them to intervene on one side or the other, or pulling out of Iraq.
Al Qaeda and its strategists have bought the power to ignite the fire of sectarian warfare in Iraq.
In these circumstances, prudence dictates the attribution of the Khadhimiya massacre to a calamitous stampede rather than an act of terror – which is what the Iraqi government and the Western media are striving to do. It is better than admitting how close Iraq is to civil war. However, inside Iraq, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report both Muslim sects, Sunni and Shiite, are harking back to their history. They perceive the horrendous episode as a natural continuation of the 1801 Wahhabiyan tribes’ sacking of Karbala and Najef and their Shiite shrines.
Iraqi security was in the wrong place
That epic assault by Sunni extremists left an open wound between the two Muslim sects, a conflict and feud that both have always believed would be settled one day in blood.
For Iraq’s Shiites, the attack on the Seventh Imam’s sanctuary follows directly on the reverses of 204 years ago; for the Sunnis, it was another opportunity to show the Shiites that their shrines were vulnerable to attacks at all times. This means that the outcome of a 21st century episode may well be determined by a historical event that occurred in the early 19th century.
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by a small al Qaeda group run by Zarqawi called “Al Calipha Muzapar” – loosely translated as meaning: the winning community.
Our counter-terror experts analyzing the event conclude that while Iraq’s military and police fell down on prevention, the attack’s planners failed to bring off their meticulously charted operation through all its stages, as will be seen by the way it unfolded.
The attack began with al Qaeda gunmen firing four mortar shells at the Khadhimiya sanctuary in Baghdad as the solemn Shiite procession approached it across a bridge over the Tigris River. Two shells failed to detonate; two blew up, killing 7 pilgrims.
At the same time, three Katyusha rockets were fired from the large Iraqi Taj army base in eastern Baghdad. The explosions were meant to frighten worshippers on their way to the procession.
Three suicide bombers wearing bomb vests meanwhile mingled with the crowd – two Iraqis and an Afghan. When they sensed they had been rumbled by the crowd, the two Iraqis blew themselves up; the Afghan was caught alive. He became the first al Qaeda operative from Afghanistan to be captured in Iraq.
The suicide bombings quickly spread panic in the crowd. They were real, not a rumor as generally reported.
Zarqawi’s bomb cars and exploding donkey carts were late
At about the time that the procession began breaking up into chaos, an Iraqi security force in the Karkh suburb of southwest Baghdad discovered a Chevrolet Malibu pickup loaded with three Katyusha launchers ready to fire. This was to have been Zarqawi’s second-strike volley to hit the pilgrims and also the emergency and medical teams arriving to render aid.
Throughout the mayhem, Shiite pilgrims continued to stream towards the shrine and join the procession.
The next thing to happen was the capture of two bomb cars destined to wreak another level of bloodshed among the worshippers. With them were three donkey-carts loaded with hundreds of kilos of explosives. Had all these death-dealing materials reached the sanctuary, many thousands of lives would have been forfeit.
Therefore, only a part of the Zarqawi plot was executed.
The real failure belongs to Iraqi security and intelligence services. Because of a miscalculation, they let terrorist teams armed with colossal quantities of explosives and weapons penetrate Baghdad.
They expected trouble at the annual Shiite pilgrimage to this shrine and prepared for it, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources. But the Sunni defense minister, Saadon Duleimi, who organized the security operation, made the mistake of withdrawing his forces from Baghdad and deploying them to the south of the capital. He figured that the bulk of the worshippers would be coming from the south and any terrorists would try to gain entry by joining them disguised as Shiite pilgrims.
But the terrorists did not enter Baghdad from the south; they came from the west or the east. There was no one to keep them out of the capital or prevent them reaching Khadhimiya, because Iraq’s security forces were concentrated in the wrong place.
And when the attack came, there were no Iraqi troops in sight to deal with the panic-stricken throng.
The Shiite street is crying for revenge
The Jaafari government is doing its best to calm raging spirits by appealing for restraint and moderation. But he will have a hard time sitting on the lid of the boiling cauldron. The Shiite street is spoiling for revenge against al Qaeda and the Sunni “Wahhabis”. It is incensed by the massacre and the assault on their shrine.
But that is not all. Zarqawi’s men are also stirring the pot.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources report that the Jordanian terrorist chief has just created a new operational unit called the Omar Column, after the Second Caliph who followed Muhammed, for the express mission of murdering members of the main Shiite militia, the Badr Brigades. The 70 or so communiques recording his group’s “military” operations day by day in the last month include three or four claims to have killed Badr men. Zarqawi is waging an undeclared war against the Shiites.
The Badr Brigades commander has ordered his men to refrain from reprisals or acts of revenge against Zarqawi’s terrorists. He is following the lead set by the heads of the big Shiite parties, SCIRI and al Dawa. One good reason they have for holding their horses is the fact that the renegade Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr has bonded with Sunni guerrilla leaders and Zarqawi. While his Mehdi Army militia was seriously disabled in the revolts he staged against the Americans last year, he still has enough fighting men for backing Sunni and al Qaeda forces.
Shiite political leaders are aware they would have to tackle Sadr’s militia with one hand while fighting the Sunnis with the other in an outbreak of sectarian hostilities. But the Shiite masses are not interested: they are clamoring for a settling of scores with their Sunni assailants. And they want to know why a government headed by the Shiite al Dawa leader Ibrahim Jaafari is unable to protect them.
The Sunnis have the military numbers, the Shiites the masses
In any Sunni-Shiite confrontation, it is not clear who would have the upper hand.
On paper, the balance of numbers favors the insurgent guerrillas and al Qaeda.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report that the Shiites command two well-trained professional military forces: the 2,000-strong “Wolves” commanded by the mystery chief, the three-star Iraqi Shiite general known as “Abu Walid;” and the far larger Badr Brigades numbering 10,000 fighters commanded by the former Iranian general Abd al Hadi al Amari.
The Sunnis can field 20,000 Iraqi guerilla fighters and an “Arab foreign’ legion, most of whom are al Qaeda adherents. They also have a reserve force of 50-70,000 officers and men, late of Saddam Hussein’s fighting units. All have relatively recent combat experience dating from before 2003 when the United States ended the full-scale military war in Iraq. In the event of a sectarian conflict, an unknown number of Sunni officers and men serving in the national Iraqi army would also defect to the insurgents.
There are three big questions that have no answer as yet:
1. Will US troops be ordered to take part in an Iraqi civil war? And if so, on which side? Or will they be told to stay neutral? There is a very real possibility that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs will not fight alone but find support from among the Sunni Arabs who dominate the Middle East.
2. Will the Iranian military structures in Iraq which run to tens of thousands of fighting men join the war on the Shiite side or stay on the sidelines?
3. Will the Iraqi war confine itself to inside the country or spread out to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or Lebanon, all of which have large Shiite populations.