A wave of fiery explosions in and around Shiite Muslim shrines in Baghdad and Karbala killed scores of Iraqis Tuesday, turning a day of pilgrimage and worship for millions into one of the worst days of mass mourning since end of the war in Iraq, Scores Die in Multiple Blasts at Iraq Shiite Shrines.
Michael Peters, executive vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, was online Tuesday, March 2 at 1 p.m. ET, to discuss today’s bombings and continued terrorism in post-war Iraq.
Peters is a career Army officer with service in Vietnam, Operation Just Cause in Panama and Desert Shield in Iraq. He also served as a special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1987-89.
Editor’s Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Chapel Hill, N.C.: To what extent is the U.S. responsible for security at the sites that were bombed? To what extent were the Shiite religious groups responsible for security? Would the Iraqis resent a U.S. security presence at their holy sites? Given that something similar happened last summer, why isn’t security better at these sites?
Michael Peters: The United States as the occupying power has ultimate responsibility for security throughout the entire country of Iraq. However, in response to concerns of the local religious leaders and other Iraqis it has for the most part allowed the Iraqi security forces, or the religious leaders themselves, to take responsibility for security at the mosques and other holy sites. In the case of the explosions today, it appears that this was the case. U.S. forces responded after the incident to assist in search and rescue and other aspects of dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy. Obviously, there is a trade off between the level of security and the sensitivity of the local populus to the presence of U.S. forces. In this case, it’s very clear that the balance probably wasn’t exactly right, but it is hard to predict this ahead of time.
Greenbelt, Md.: Just the obvious questions here: Who is likely behind this? What do they hope to gain? Possible fallout for U.S. troops?
Michael Peters: No one has taken responsibility for these bombings, nor any of the other major suicide attacks since the U.S. occupation began. However, the characteristics of these attacks strongly suggest that they were carried out by foreign terrorists, that is non-Iraqi, or those associated with the Kurdish terrorist group Ansar al-Islam. The attack on predominately Shiite crowds in both cities in celebrating an important Shiite holiday is consistent with the strategy outlined by al-Zarqawi in a document obtained by the coalition forces in the last month. In this document, al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian-born terrorist with links to al Qaeda, espoused attacks against the majority Shiites in Iraq as a way to undermine the stability of the country and encourage civil strife between the Shiites and the Sunnis. The goal seems to be to rally the "Sunni silent majority" to support the cause of the more radical Sunni elements and prevent a Shiite-dominated government from coming to power in the aftermath of the U.S. occupation.
Fountain Valley, Calif.: It seems to me that the insurgency might have reduced attacks on Americans and increased them on Iraqis. Is this true, and if so, why?
Michael Peters: The number of attacks on U.S. and other coalition forces has gone down over the past several months. At the same time, the number of attacks and the severity of attacks on Iraqis closely associated with the coalition, such as police, civil defense, and others has been increasing. Therefore, it appears that the strategy of the insurgents has shifted from principally targeting U.S. and coalition forces to targeting those Iraqis who are supporting the coalition and other Iraqi citizens, particularly among the Shiite majority. This shift was also alluded to in the al-Zarqawi document, mentioned in response to the last question.
Wheaton, Md.: Is the new Iraqi constitution part of this problem by making Islam as a source of law? By doing so, the different islamic factions are almost being forced into fighting for which version of Islam will dominate. A secular constitution, (like that of the U.S.) that provided equal protection for all religions, would have prevented this conflict.
Michael Peters: It is interesting that the explosions took place one day after the Iraqi Governing Council agreed on an interim constitution. However, I don’t see any immediate connection between the two. It is true that one of the most contentious issues in the drafting of this constitution was the role of Islam and Islamic law. The interim constitution designates Islam as the official religion of the Iraqi state, but at the same time guarantees the free exercise of religion. In this constitution, Islam is "a source" of legislation among others and not the "primary source." It is almost impossible to imagine an Iraqi constitution that does not acknowledge the importance of Islam in that society. It appears that this interim constitution and, we would hope, the final constitution will provide for the rights of the minorities— religious, ethnic, and otherwise— at the same time it recognizes the role of Islam.
New York, N.Y.: How do you see the current rotation of different types of U.S. armed forces in and out of Iraq affecting the security situation? Will vital ground be lost due to the time it will take the new soldiers to adjust? Could this further affect or delay the handover from the CPA to the IGC?
Michael Peters: The U.S. commanders will do everything in their power to ensure that the security situation does not deteriorate during the ongoing rotation of troops in and out of Iraq. Having said this, with the number of forces that will be moving, the limited routes over which they will travel, and the potential benefit to the insurgents if they can successfully attack our troops, the possibility of a significant incident increases. The U.S. commanders are also making great efforts to ensure a smooth hand-off among outgoing and incoming units, but there is no doubt that for some period of time the new units will not be as effective as the units they replace. All this notwithstanding, there is no way that the U.S. rotation, even if it’s more rocky than we hope, will delay the handover of the CPA to some interim Iraqi authority on schedule on June 30, 2004.
New York, N.Y.: Do you expect the violence in Iraq to diminish once power is handed over to the Iraqis on June 30th?
Michael Peters: I would expect violence to increase between now and the handover on June 30, 2004. It is in the interest of the insurgents to frustrate the handover, and it would be a victory for them if they can create the conditions to postpone the handover. It is probably too early to tell exactly how the insurgents will act in the aftermath of the handover. But, it seems clear that they will do whatever they feel is necessary to prevent a stable government, especially if it is dominated by the Shiites, from consolidating power. To some extent the strategy and tactics that the insurgents take will depend on the relationship that the Iraqi interim government has with the U.S. forces that remain in the country. At this point, those sorts of details haven’t even begun to be worked out, but it is something to watch closely.
Urbana, Ill.: What role do the Baathists play in these attacks? I’ve noticed a sharp decline in attacks these past two weeks. Are the Baathists finished in terms of their ability to continue the insurgency?
Michael Peters: The insurgents seem to fall, generally, into three groups. The first are common criminals, some of whom were released by Saddam Hussein just prior to the war, and others who escaped during the chaos that ensued during the war and its aftermath. The second, are the foreign fighters/terrorists and the Kurdish group Ansar al-Islam. The third group is what is generally referred to as former regime elements (FREs) which include some members of the Baath party. Experts seem to believe that the former Baath elements are responsible for the smaller scale, what could be described as harrassment attacks, against coalition forces using things like improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and the like. The general feeling is that the suicide bombers who have been responsible for the most catastrophic attacks, such as those today, are foreign fighters with possible links to al Qaeda or other Islamic terrorist organizations.
Alexandria, Va.: If the insurgency is increasing its focus on the larger Iraqi populace, is it reasonable (or naive) to expect that at some point, the targeted Iraqis will increase efforts to root out the insurgents? How about increased support from neighboring Arab nations?
Michael Peters: That is certainly the hope of the coalition authorities in Baghdad and all of us who are looking forward to a stable Iraq. It is also one of the reasons why it is important for the United States to hand over authority to what is seen by the Iraqis as a legitimate government as soon as possible. The challenge that the coalition faces, and those Iraqis who are willing to stand with us, is that we have to be successful and the insurgents only need not fail. It is hard to predict how or when the balance might tip in favor of those who are trying to build an Iraq for the future, as opposed to those who are trying to continue to inspire chaos in pursuit of their own interests.
It is hard to generalize among the Arab states in the region, some of which, like Kuwait and Qatar, have provided substantial support to the coalition; while others, such as Syria, have, at times, made the situation much more difficult.