Shrine Bombing as War's Turning Point Debated
Administration Says Event Increased Violence, but Many Iraq Experts Disagree

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.

"In the end, stability was so weak that it only took the mosque bombing to break it apart," he concluded. "If the golden mosque hadn't done it, another bombing probably would have."

Even some in the military say their colleagues and commanders have misinterpreted the significance of the mosque bombing. "You have to understand the dome incident as being as much a manifestation of the weaknesses in our strategy and operational approach in Iraq than as some sort of causative tipping point," said Army Reserve Lt. Col. Christopher Holshek, a veteran of the Iraq war.

But the majority of military officers interviewed stood by the view that the shrine attack was the turning point in the war.

The impact of the bombing cannot be overestimated, said Army Lt. Col. James A. Gavrilis, an officer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served with Special Forces in Iraq. "The mosque bombing was a tipping point. . . . Sectarianism was a problem before, as it is now, but the bombing was a catalyst for increased sectarian violence."

Iraqi Shiite leaders have also cited the impact of the bombing. "The explosion of the holy shrine pushed the country into blind violence, in which tens of thousands of innocents were killed," said Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite cleric, in a statement last month. "No one knows but Allah when this tragedy will be over."

Before the attack, said an Army officer, "you could feel the changes and sense we were moving in the right direction." But after it, he said, Shiites were infuriated. "It was the catalyst that caused the Shiites to strike back hard and ramp up the cycle of sectarian violence," he said.

Another Army officer, a strategy expert, said Shiites had waited patiently to see if the United States could provide for their security. The bombing convinced them that it was not possible, he said, and they then turned to Shiite militias for protection.

But White, the former DIA analyst, said the bombing primarily changed the way U.S. commanders viewed the war they were waging. After that day, it became much harder for them to argue that there were enough troops, because the U.S. military was given the mission of containing Shiite militias, on top of its existing missions of countering the insurgency and training Iraqi security forces.

One Army officer who recalled buying into the optimism of late 2005 and early 2006, when he was a commander in Iraq, said that in retrospect, the situation was far worse than he and others understood it to be. He said it was the Samarra bombing that led him to believe that Iraq was indeed caught in a civil war. "What Samarra came to mean for me was a defining point in time, almost like a teaching point, where the real face of the Iraq war became clear," he said.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company