Shrine Bombing as War's Turning Point Debated

An Iraqi, his face red after self-flagellation, sits inside the damaged shrine in Samarra, Iraq, in February 2006.
An Iraqi, his face red after self-flagellation, sits inside the damaged shrine in Samarra, Iraq, in February 2006. (By Khalid Mohammed -- Associated Press)

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By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Feb. 22, 2006, is the day the Bush administration says everything in Iraq changed.

Before that day, military and administration officials frequently explain, Iraq was moving in the right direction: National elections had been held, and a government was forming. But then the bombing of the golden dome shrine in Samarra derailed that positive momentum and unleashed a wave of brutal sectarian violence.

Even now, more than a year later, the president and other administration officials cite Samarra as a turning point -- "a tragic escalation of sectarian rage and reprisal," President Bush called it in a March 6 news conference. "One of the key changes in Iraq last year," White House spokesman Tony Snow said in January.

Many Iraq specialists and defense analysts contend that this narrative of the mosque bombing is misleading, yet also revealing of how U.S. strategy in Iraq has evolved. Experts say the attack did not begin a civil war but rather confirmed the ongoing deterioration and violence in Iraq -- conditions the White House and the generals had resisted recognizing. In that sense, the bombing destroyed much more than the shrine: It also demolished the positive view of progress in Iraq, leading military and administration officials to a more pessimistic perspective, and eventually to a new U.S. strategy.

Samarra was not a major turning point in the war, said James Miller, a former Pentagon policy official. "The evidence on the record makes that not credible," he said. "The mosque bombing was just gasoline on a fire that already was burning pretty well."

No one was killed in the dawn bombing, which shattered the gilded roof of one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, about 65 miles north of Baghdad. But in the following days, a wave of sectarian violence swept across central Iraq, killing hundreds.

The U.S. military had planned to begin drawing down its combat force in Iraq sometime in 2006, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a congressional committee last month. "We did not because in February of last year, the golden mosque bombing and all the sectarian violence that ensued from that, we realized by around June that we were not going to be able to come down," he said.

Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency specialist in Middle Eastern security issues, said, "I do not think things were going well before the bombing." White, now an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, added: "The insurgency was not controlled. Incident levels were rising."

Since 2003, violence in Iraq has increased at a steady pace, with some slight dips each winter. The increase continued last year, reaching an average of about 5,000 acts of violence a month. By the time of the shrine bombing, about 2,287 U.S. troops had died in Iraq; since then, that number has increased by 903.

What the official narrative does not consider, said Ahmed Hashim, a professor of strategy at the Naval War College, is that civil war was well underway before February 2006. The mosque bombing should be seen as "a reflection of that, not a cause," he said.

Asad Abu Khalil, a political scientist at California State University at Stanislaus, said it is characteristic of foreign occupiers to seize upon one episode and point to it as the moment that undercut all their good efforts. "The golden dome merely focused and intensified a conflict that was already taking place," he said. "If the bombing of the golden dome did not take place, some other bombing would have occurred."

The view that U.S. strategy was working before the bombing in Samarra leans on the assumption that the elections at the end of 2005 were a sign of progress, noted Carter Malkasian, who has served three tours in Iraq advising the Marines on counterinsurgency techniques. At the same time, he observed, the country was fracturing -- with growing support for insurgents, an increasing number of attacks on U.S. forces and deepening Sunni unhappiness with the Iraqi government.

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