Despite Republican senator John McCain’s conviction that “We’ve already won that one,” i.e. the Iraq War, actually you couldn’t say either that the war is over or that things are going well politically in that country. It lacks a new government, the political wrangling is interminable, the apparatus of state is paralyzed, and big bombings are undertaken with frightening efficiency.
Two bombings by guerrillas killed at least 40 Shiite pilgrims and wounded 68 in the holy city of Karbala, where hundreds of thousands of devotees had gathered to commemorate the hidden Twelfth Imam, who this branch of Shiism holds will return in the future as a sort of messiah figure (analogous to the return of Christ for many Christians). The time and place of the bombing made it especially dangerous for Iraq’s inter-sectarian politics. Karbala is sacred ground for Shiites, the burial place of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Husayn, who was killed by the Muslim Umayyad dynasty in 680 CE (AD) and so is considered the supreme martyr. A big bombing in Karbala reverberates throughout Shiite Iraq and among Shiites everywhere. In February of 2006, when guerrillas blew up the golden dome shrine of Imam Hasan al-Askari (a descendant of both the Prophet and of Imam Husayn), the 11th Imam and father of the Twelfth Imam, Iraq descended into an orgy of sectarian violence that killed as many as 2500 civilians a month.
Al-Khaleej reports that the two bombs were set off at the city gate, distant from the Shrine of Husayn.
Also on Monday, the offices of the al-Arabiya satellite television news network were bombed, killing 6 persons and wounding a member of parliament from the secular Iraqiya list of Iyad Allawi, Salam al-Zawbaie. The al-Arabiya offices are near to the Iraqiya headquarters.
The bombings may have been intended as interventions in the political wrangling about the formation of a new government, something that still has not happened all these months after the March 7 election. (In Iraq’s parliamentary system, they hold the election first, then see who has enough seats to form a government; so far no one has put together a viable coalition, unlike what happened in Britain recently, where the election did not yield a majority party but the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats managed to form a government together despite their significant ideological differences.)
Big bombings in Karbala make Shiite caretaker prime minister Nuri al-Maliki look weak and ineffective, undermining his claim to a second term, which is based in part on his partial successes in restoring some security to major cities such as Basra and Baghdad.
The bombing of al-Arabiya, in the vicinity of the Iraqiya Party, may have been a strike at Sunni Arab interests (al-Arabiya is based in the United Arab Emirates and is sympathetic to moderate Sunni Arabs in Iraq).
Leaders of the major parties are said to be planning to meet in Baghdad, including Masoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Alliance, Iyad Allawi of the secular Iraqiya Party (mainly voted for this time by Sunni Arabs), Nuri al-Maliki of the middle class Shiite State of Law Coalition, and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr of the fundamentalist Shiite Sadr Bloc. Al-Sadr is said to prefer not to meet al-Maliki face to face. A parliamentary session is also planned to discuss the prerogatives of al-Maliki’s caretaker government, which remains in power 5 months after the election, given the constitutional crisis and relative power vacuum (parliament has not been meeting regularly in the absence of a new government). One plan is to strip al-Maliki’s caretaker government of many of its prerogatives, allowing it only to deliver government services.
The problem is that the army reports to al-Maliki and neither may be interested in what parliament thinks. Nor is it clear that what Iraq needs at this point is a weaker caretaker government.