TIME

Iraq’s Top Cleric Calls for Deal on Prime Minister by Tuesday

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s top Shiite cleric stepped up pressure on deeply divided political blocs Friday, calling on them to agree on the next prime minister before the newly elected parliament convenes next week to pave the way for an inclusive government in the face of Sunni militants who have seized large swaths of territory.

The appeal by the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani comes as current leader Nouri al-Maliki is fighting to keep his job, with his former Shiite allies and even key patron Iran exploring alternatives in the face of Iraq’s worst crisis since U.S. troops withdrew at the end of 2011.

Al-Maliki, who has governed the country since 2006, needs support from other parties after his State of Law bloc won the most seats in the elections but failed to gain the majority needed to govern alone. That set the stage for potentially months of coalition negotiations. But now a new government is wanted urgently to face the lightning advance across the north and west of the country by the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

The stunning gains were made possible in large part as Iraqi security forces melted away in large part due to fear of the insurgents’ brutality.

Human Rights Watch released a report Friday about the killings of scores of police and soldiers by the Sunni militants in the days after it captured the northern city of Mosul on June 10 then stormed south to capture Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.

The killings were widely reported after the Islamic State posted graphic, online photos showing dozens of men wearing civilian clothes lined up and bent over as militants pointed rifles at them from behind. A final set of photos shows bodies.

Human Rights Watch said that based on analysis of the photos and satellite imagery, the militants killed between 160 to 190 men in two locations in Tikrit between June 11 and June 14.

“The number of victims may well be much higher, but the difficulty of locating bodies and accessing the area has prevented a full investigation,” the group said.

Human Rights Watch said it used satellite imagery from 2013 and publicly available photos taken earlier to pinpoint the site of the killings in a field next to the Tigris River and near one of Saddam’s former palaces. It said satellite imagery of the site from June 16 did not reveal bodies but showed indications of earth movement consistent with the two shallow trenches visible in the photos, in which the soldiers were forced to lie down before being shot.

“The photos and satellite images from Tikrit provide strong evidence of a horrible war crime that needs further investigation,” Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Chief Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi confirmed the online photos’ authenticity on June 15, after they first surfaced, and told The Associated Press at the time that an examination of the images by military experts showed that about 170 soldiers were shot to death after their capture.

Captions on the photos showing the soldiers after they were shot say “hundreds have been liquidated,” but the total could not be verified.

The massacre appeared to be aimed at instilling fear in Iraq’s demoralized armed forces as well as the country’s Shiite majority, whom the Islamic State views as apostates.

On the military front, a senior Iraqi army official told the AP that four helicopters carrying Iraqi commandos landed at a soccer pitch inside a university campus in militant-held Tikrit late Thursday and clashed with Islamic State fighters for several hours.

One of the helicopters developed mechanical problems after takeoff from Tikrit, 80 miles (130 kilometers) north of Baghdad, but landed safely in the provincial military headquarters. The official had no word on casualties and declined to specify the mission’s objectives. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

The official also said 200 troops have arrived at a key refinery north of Baghdad under attack by militants for more than a week. The reinforcing troops join a 100-strong contingent that has been defending the Beiji refinery, Iraq’s largest and the source of about a quarter of the country’s oil product needs, including fuel for power stations.

State-run television aired footage Friday purporting to show troops disembarking from helicopters at Beiji, with some carrying boxes of supplies. Dense black smoke was rising from what appeared to be a large fuel tank.

The news from Tikrit and Beiji suggested that Iraq’s military was stepping up efforts to regain its footing against the insurgents, who appear to be trying to carve out a self-styled Islamic state astride the Iraqi-Syrian border.

On Friday, al-Maliki warned army commanders that militants were likely to try to undermine security in the Iraqi capital ahead of Tuesday’s parliamentary session. “Baghdad must be secured and not subjected to any instability at this time,” he said in televised comments.

Al-Maliki sounded upbeat on the military situation, saying the armed forces have regained the initiative and were now on the offensive. He cited Thursday’s Tikrit raid as an example. He also vowed to severely punish army commanders whom he said were taking bribes from soldiers to allow them to stay home.

The United States and other world powers have pressed al-Maliki, in office since 2006, to reach out to the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities and have called for a more inclusive government that can address longstanding grievances. But he has instead widely been accused of monopolizing power and alienating Sunnis, and his failure to promote national reconciliation has been blamed for fueling the Sunni anger.

Al-Sistani also called on Iraq’s politicians to agree on the next parliament speaker and president by the time the new legislature meets on Tuesday, a cleric who represents him told worshippers in a Friday sermon in the holy city of Karbala.

Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie told worshippers that would be a “prelude to the political solution that everyone seeks at the present.”

The reclusive al-Sistani, the most revered figure among Iraqi Shiites, rarely appears or speaks in public, instead delivering messages through other clerics or, less frequently, issuing edicts.

TIME Military

Armed U.S. Drones Flying Over Baghdad

Baghdad Aerial Kerry
A picture taken on board a helicopter shows a US State Department helicopter flying over the Iraqi capital Baghdad as it transports US Secretary of State John Kerry on June 23, 2014, in Baghdad. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

Primary mission is to defend Americans on the ground

Armed U.S. drones are flying over the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, an American official said Friday, primed to defend U.S. troops and diplomats on the ground—or to attack insurgents challenging the Iraqi government if President Barack Obama orders such strikes.

“We have the necessary forces not only to protect our own forces, but to be prepared should the President make a decision to do something more,” a senior Pentagon official said Friday. “We’ve got both manned and unmanned over Iraq, and it shouldn’t surprise anybody that some of our drones have armaments.”

The drone flights don’t necessarily portend a change in policy from Obama, who has sent military advisers to help the struggling Iraqi army fight Sunni militants taking control of swaths of the country but has said they’ll only be involved in training, not combat.

“This doesn’t mean necessarily that were going to use them—the President hasn’t made a decision to use any sort of direct action—but could the armed ones be used for protection of our advisers on the ground, of course they could be,” the military official said of the drones. “They’re also there looking for targets of opportunities. If the President decides they merit striking, sure, they’re there for that, too, but the President hasn’t made any of those decisions.”

The official likened the drone deployments to “due diligence.” Likewise, the up-to-300 U.S. troops Obama has ordered into Iraq to help the tottering government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “aren’t going into combat, but they sure are going in armed,” the official added.

MQ-1 Predators, outfitted with Hellfire missiles, have begun flying missions over Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq from an airbase in Kuwait, a military official said.

Manned and unmanned aircraft are flying “around-the-clock coverage” over Iraq, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, said last Friday. They are flying between 30 and 35 sorties daily. “We’re not looking at the whole country,” he added. “We’re looking at parts of the country that are obviously of greatest interest.”

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: June 27

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

In the news: The partition of Iraq; Ukraine signs historic EU agreement; U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war; Supreme Court rules on presidential appointment powers and abortion clinic buffer zones; World War I centennial; Clinton's book and the Chinese market; U.S. advances to the next round of the World Cup

  • “Over the past two weeks, the specter that has haunted Iraq since its founding 93 years ago appears to have become a reality: the de facto partition of the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish cantons.” [NYT]
    • “Iraqi insurgents executed at least 160 captives earlier this month in the northern city of Tikrit, Human Rights Watch said Friday … ” [AP]
  • “Ukraine signed on Friday an historic free-trade agreement with the European Union that has been at the heart of months of violence and upheaval in the country, drawing an immediate threat of ‘grave consequences’ from Russia.” [Reuters]
  • “The Obama administration asked Congress on Thursday to authorize $500 million in direct U.S. military training and equipment for Syrian opposition fighters, a move that could significantly escalate U.S. involvement in Syria’s civil war.” [WashPost]
  • Scars of World War I Linger in Europe on Eve of Centennial [WSJ]
  • “The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a Massachusetts law mandating a 35-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics is unconstitutional because it limited speech on sidewalks and other ‘public fora.’ But in dozens of other decisions over the last 30 years, the court has held that buffer zones can be constitutional.” [TIME]
  • “Handing a victory to those who fear the executive branch has overreached in recent years, the Supreme Court has reined in the President’s power to appoint officers of the government when Congress is in recess.” [TIME]
  • “The best chance in three decades to rewrite immigration laws has slipped away just one year after the Senate garnered 68 votes for sweeping reform of the system, 20 months after strong Hispanic turnout for Democrats in the 2012 election sparked a GOP panic, and five years after Obama promised to act.” [Politico]
  • Here are the 43,634 properties in Detroit that were on the brink of foreclosure this year [NYT]
  • “Hillary Clinton’s new book will not be sold in mainland China, despite efforts by her publisher, Simon & Schuster, to sell the memoir there.” [BuzzFeed]
    • “Bill Clinton has been paid $104.9 million for 542 speeches around the world between January 2001, when he left the White House, and January 2013, when Hillary stepped down as secretary of state…” [WashPost]
  • “Unattractive, maybe, but not undeserved. The U.S. national men’s soccer team advanced to the knockout stage of the World Cup on Thursday despite losing to Germany.” [TIME]
TIME Iraq

Rights Group: Iraq Militants Executed 160 Captives

Grisly photos released by militants show that at least 160 captives were killed in Tikrit, Human Rights Watch said

+ READ ARTICLE

(BAGHDAD) — Iraqi insurgents executed at least 160 captives earlier this month in the northern city of Tikrit, Human Rights Watch said Friday, citing an analysis of satellite imagery and grisly photos released by the militants.

The U.S.-based rights group said militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant killed between 160 and 190 men in two locations in Tikrit between June 11 and June 14. “The number of victims may well be much higher, but the difficulty of locating bodies and accessing the area has prevented a full investigation,” it said.

After overrunning large swaths of northern Iraq and capturing the cities of Mosul and Tikrit earlier this month, the Islamic extremist group posted graphic photos on a militant website that appeared to show fighters loading dozens of captured soldiers onto flatbed trucks before forcing them to lie in a shallow ditch with their hands tied behind their backs. A final set of photos shows bodies.

“The photos and satellite images from Tikrit provide strong evidence of a horrible war crime that needs further investigation,” Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Chief Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi confirmed the photos’ authenticity on June 15, after they first surfaced, and said he was aware of cases of mass murder of captured Iraqi soldiers in areas held by the Islamic State.

He told The Associated Press at the time that an examination of the images by military experts showed that about 170 soldiers were shot to death after their capture.

Captions on the photos showing the soldiers after they were shot say “hundreds have been liquidated,” but the total could not be verified.

The massacre appeared to be aimed at instilling fear in Iraq’s demoralized armed forces — which melted away as militants seized much of the north in a matter of days — as well as the country’s Shiite majority, whom the Islamic State views as apostates.

“This is the fate that awaits the Shiites sent by Nouri to fight the Sunnis,” one caption read, apparently referring to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The rapid advance of the Islamic State and allied Sunni militants has ignited sectarian tensions, with heavily armed Shiite militias vowing to defend Baghdad and revered shrine cities to the south. On Thursday a bombing killed 12 people in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad that houses a revered shrine, and police found the bullet-riddled bodies of eight Sunnis south of the capital.

Prominent Shiite leaders are meanwhile pushing for the removal of al-Maliki, who has come under mounting pressure to reach out to the country’s disaffected Sunni and Kurdish minorities and rapidly form a unified government following April’s parliamentary elections.

Even al-Maliki’s most important ally, neighboring Iran, is said to be looking at alternatives.

A senior Iranian general who met with Shiite politicians in Iraq during a 10-day visit this month returned home with a list of potential prime minister candidates for Iran’s leadership to consider, several senior Iraqi Shiite politicians who have knowledge of the general’s meetings told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The general, Ghasem Soleimani, is expected to return within days to inform Iraqi politicians of Tehran’s favorite, they said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations.

The rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in the north as well as the restive western Anbar province has plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011 and raised fears of a region-wide conflict. The radical group has carved out a self-styled Islamic state straddling the Syrian-Iraqi border, where it has imposed a brutal version of Shariah law.

Russia’s U.N. ambassador said Thursday that there is a real prospect of a terrorist state springing up from Syria’s second-largest city Aleppo to Iraq’s capital Baghdad.

Vitaly Churkin, the current president of the U.N. Security Council, said he told the 14 other council members that a terrorist state “is a very, very serious prospect” that the council needs to address “because really we are lagging behind … in our responses.”

He argued that Russia’s support for President Bashar Assad’s government in Syria was aimed at preventing the Islamic State from taking over.

The United States is also looking to Syria, with President Barack Obama requesting $500 million to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels in the hopes of opening up a new front against the Islamic State, which has been at war with other Islamic and secular rebel groups since the start of the year.

The rebel groups turned on the Islamic State because of its alleged brutality toward rivals and activists. Massacres like the one depicted in the online photos from Iraq could alienate some Sunnis while emboldening the armed forces and Shiite militias.

Human Rights Watch said that using satellite imagery from 2013 and publicly available photos taken earlier, it was able to pinpoint the execution site in a field near a former palace of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, next to the Tigris river.

It said satellite imagery of the site from June 16 did not reveal bodies but showed indications of vehicles and earth movement consistent with the two shallow trenches visible in the photos.

TIME energy

U.S. Oil Could Rescue Iraq

A satellite image shows smoke rising from the Baiji refinery near Tikrit, Iraq, June 18.
A satellite image shows smoke rising from the Baiji refinery near Tikrit, Iraq, June 18. U.S. Geological Survey/Reuters

If civil war engulfs all of Iraq, oil prices are likely to skyrocket. But U.S. exports could change the game

Even though the conflict in Iraq still rages, with forces from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) just an hour outside of Baghdad while the Syrian military is reportedly bombing the insurgents, global oil markets have mostly calmed. Prices for Brent crude on June 26 had fallen below $114 a barrel, and have dropped more than 1% since hitting a nine-month high on June 19. The violence in Iraq’s north and west—including fighting around the country’s largest refinery in Baiji—hasn’t yet seriously affected oil production in the Shiite dominated south. Iraq’s Oil Minister Abdul Kareem al-Luaibi even promised in an interview with Bloomberg that the nation’s oil exports—which have averaged more than 2.5 million barrels a day—will actually accelerate next month. “Oil exports will witness a big increase, as recent events didn’t reflect negatively on Iraq’s crude output and exports,” al-Luaibi said. “International oil companies are working normally in Iraq.”

That doesn’t seem to be quite true, though—international oil majors like BP and ExxonMobil have already evacuated some of their foreign workers from Iraq. And if things do get worse, oil markets might not react so calmly. A recent report from the nonprofit Securing America’s Future Energy found that the loss of just a third of Iraq’s oil output could be enough to push global oil prices up as much as $40 per barrel. Even if production from Iraq stays steady, political turmoil in countries like Libya and Nigeria have helped remove some 3.5 million barrels a day of oil production capacity. That doesn’t leave much room for more trouble in Iraq, the world’s third-largest exporter of crude oil. And with Iraq projected to be the biggest single contributor to new oil production over the coming decades—at least before the ISIS insurgency revved up—what happens in the country will matter at the pumps for a very long time.

But it’s not so easy to predict the future of energy and oil. Case in point: the fracking revolution in the U.S., which has unlocked vast amounts of previously inaccessible crude, and which few experts saw coming. Between 2008 and 2013, U.S. oil production increased by 2.4 million barrels a day, to more than 7.4 million. And the growth hasn’t stopped—production hit 8.3 million barrels a day in April. Most of the new global oil production brought online over the past few years has come from the U.S. While the U.S. doesn’t export raw crude—aside from a few small exceptions, U.S. oil exports have been banned since 1975—more oil at home means fewer imports, which in turns leaves more oil on the global market for everyone else. Take away the fracking revolution, and global oil markets wouldn’t have been able to so easily shrug off the violence in Iraq.

In the years to come, the U.S. could play an even bigger role. As the Wall Street Journal and Reuters reported earlier this week, the Obama Administration has begun taking steps towards allowing U.S. crude exports. If that wording sounds confusing, well, it is. What seems to be happening is that the U.S. Commerce Department will allow a pair of oil companies to begin exporting what is known as ultra-light condensate to international markets, with only minimal refining. (The U.S. has long allowed exports of refined oil products.) That doesn’t mean U.S. oil companies can begin exporting all the crude they want; in fact, both Commerce and the White House, reflecting the political sensitivities around allowing domestic exports at a time when gasoline costs an average of $3.68 a gallon, have insisted that there has been “no change in policy on crude oil exports.”

But with domestic oil production approaching the capacity of U.S. refineries—and the oil industry putting all its considerable pressure on the government—it seems likely that U.S. oil will eventually be sold abroad. What effect that will have domestically is uncertain. A recent report by Goldman Sachs found that the ban on exports was a net economic positive for the U.S., at least until domestic refineries could no longer handle growing production of oil. But it seems clear that lifting or at least modifying the ban would likely lead to more production, as oil companies wouldn’t have to worry about their product being landlocked in the U.S. A report by the research firm IHS found that lifting the ban would lead to more than $700 billion in additional investment in oil extraction between 2016 and 2030, and would increase oil production by an average of 1.2 million barrels a day. And given that global crude demand is expected to rise by about that much over the next several years, that oil could be very useful indeed—especially if today’s fighting in Iraq is only the beginning.

TIME Morning Must Reads

Morning Must Reads: June 26

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

In the news: Iraq's sectarian warfare; The power of the Tea Party; Aereo's demise; a landmark Supreme Court ruling for digital privacy; 984 ways the United States can advance to the next round of the World Cup; What's prettier in print

  • “The bodies arrive in twos and threes most every day in the Baghdad morgue now, a grim barometer of the city’s sectarian tensions. Most have gunshot wounds to the head, some have signs of torture, and most of them are Sunnis.” [NYT]
    • How the fate of one holy site could plunge Iraq back into civil war [TIME]
  • “Republican Sen. Thad Cochran’s runoff victory Tuesday exposed the limits of tea-party power at the polls, but conservative activists retain considerable influence in Congress as they fight the Export-Import Bank, an immigration law overhaul and higher taxes to repair bridges and roads.” [WSJ]
  • House Republicans to sue Obama [TIME]
  • Explaining Aereo’s Demise: Bad for Cord-Cutters, Good for Lawyers [TIME]
  • “The Supreme Court issued a far-reaching defense of digital privacy in a landmark ruling Wednesday, blocking law enforcement officials from searching cell phones without a warrant at the scene of an arrest or after—except in cases of extraordinary and specific danger, like child abduction or the threat of a terrorist attack.” [TIME]
  • How Eric Holder outlasted his (many) critics. [Politico Mag]
  • 984 ways the United States can advance to the next round of the World Cup [NYT]
    • Beyond the Bite: 5 of the most shocking World Cup moments [TIME]
  • Prettier in Print
TIME Iraq

Syria Bombed ISIS Fighters in Iraq, Maliki Confirms

Syria has joined the conflict in Iraq by launching air strikes against the insurgents, the Iraqi Prime Minister confirms

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki confirmed Thursday that Syria bombed Islamic militants in the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim on Tuesday, the BBC reports.

Though Maliki claimed he didn’t request Syria’s support, he said he “welcomed” any action against the insurgents, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who now control large parts of northern and western Iraq.

Syria’s strikes may displease U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who on Wednesday warned outside actors in the Middle East against intervening in Iraq.

“We don’t need anything to take place that might exacerbate the sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension,” said Kerry while speaking at a NATO summit. Kerry previously ruled out U.S. airstrikes in Iraq.

Syria’s bombings in Iraq have been interpreted as the two countries uniting over a common enemy, ISIS. ISIS, which is opposed to Syria’s President Bashar Assad as well as Iraq’s Maliki, controls territory in northern Syria in addition to the land it’s recently claimed in Iraq, which includes border crossings between the two neighboring nations.

Reports have also suggested that Iran is aiding Iraq’s government by sending military supplies and launching surveillance drones over the country. Iran has also reinforced its western border with Iraq.

The Iraqi government has been struggling to halt ISIS’ progress. The group is believed to be only an hour’s drive north of the capital Baghdad.

Facing the mounting military might of ISIS on top of growing political and diplomatic pressure internally and from allies, Maliki has announced plans to form a new government when parliament reconvenes in the capital next week. He has also purchased Russian warplanes as the U.S. has persistently delayed Iraq’s attempts to buy American fighter jets.

[BBC]

TIME Foreign Policy

How the Fate of One Holy Site Could Plunge Iraq Back into Civil War

Iraq Violence
Iraqis walk past the damaged al-Askari mosque following an explosion in Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq on Feb. 22, 2006. Hameed Rasheed—AP

Officials fear repeat of 2006 attack on sacred Shi'ite mosque

When Secretary of State John Kerry visited Baghdad on Monday, he arrived in a city bracing for war with the brutal fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who have taken control of Iraq’s north and west.

The fall of Baghdad to ISIS would be a disaster. But U.S. officials call that scenario unlikely, thanks to the city’s vast size and the hostility of its large Shi’ite population towards to Sunni ISIS. It does appear that ISIS’s lightning offensive has stalled out north of the capital.

That’s why U.S. officials are now anxiously focused elsewhere, on a thousand-year-old sacred site in Samarra, a city 80 miles north of Baghdad now mostly controlled by ISIS.

“Clearly, everyone understands that Samarra is an important line,” Kerry said in Baghdad. “Historically, an assault on Samarra created enormous problems in Iraq. That is something that we all do not want to see happen again.”

Kerry was referring to the events of Feb. 22, 2006, when members of al-Qaeda in Iraq, a group that later morphed into ISIS, infiltrated Samarra’s al-Askari mosque. After tying up sleeping guards inside, the fighters planted bombs that destroyed its famous gilded dome. That savage act of religious vandalism “started Iraq’s slide into civil war,” a senior Obama Administration official said—one that U.S. officials fear could be re-ignited again today.

Back then, the bombers’ design was chillingly sinister. Also known as the Golden Dome Mosque for the resplendent coat added to the ancient structure’s teardrop-shaped dome a century before, al-Askari is one Shi’ite Islam’s holiest sites. Built in 944, it not only houses the tombs of two 9th-century Shi’ite imams but is said to stand near a supernatural site: a tunnel into which their descendent, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who is known as the 12th Imam, disappeared into occultation in 878. Most Shi’ites believe this so-called Hidden Imam, or Mahdi, will one day reappear as a messiah and bring salvation to Shiite believers.

The mosque’s bombing shattered a relatively optimistic moment for Iraq, following the country’s successful December 2005 elections. The bombs which reduced the mosque’s upper exterior to a pile of rubble and twisted metal killed no one. But the explosion probably led to the slaughter of thousands—which was exactly the plan. The leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq at the time, the notoriously murderous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, pursued the explicit goal of a nationwide religious civil war.

His sadistic plan’s success was soon easily measured in blood. Some Shi’ites called the attack their 9/11. “Within hours, spontaneous sectarian killing broke out through most of Iraq,” General Stanley McChrystal, then a senior U.S. commander in Iraq, recalled in his 2013 memoir. “Thousands of [Shi'ite] men gathered… in [Baghdad's heavily Shi'ite] Sadr City, loading onto the back of flatbed trucks and slinging weapons. Sunni mosques were torched or strafed with bullets.”

McChrystal estimates that a thousand Iraqis were killed in the next five days, and says the ensuing months brought widespread massacres and torture: “Sunni bodies were found with their kneecaps drilled hollow, while severed heads of Shia were carefully spotted for public view.”

Memories of that hideous time in Iraq explains why Obama officials are so alarmed by the presence of ISIS in Samarra. It was only thanks to prompt mid-June counterattacks by Iraqi security forces—with the help of Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, an Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’ite militia—that ISIS fighters didn’t overrun the mosque, which they surely would have destroyed. The area of Samarra around al-Askari is now heavily fortified. But ISIS remains inside the majority-Sunni city of about 350,000, and has reportedly been lobbing mortar shells at al-Askari, whose dome was restored in 2009, along with a pair of minarets also bombed in 2007.

Like Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq before them, “ISIS intends to trigger a full-fledged civil war in Iraq,” says Ahmed Ali of the Institute for the Study of War. “For ISIS, the fastest mechanism to trigger the civil war would be by targeting the al-Askari shrine in Samarra and other shrines in Iraq. In essence, ISIS seeks to replicate the post-shrine attack environment of 2006.” Ali says Iraq’s Shi’ites have shown notable restraint in the face of ISIS’s provocations thus far, but adds that “the consequences of an attack on the shrine will be grave.”

The al-Askari mosque is just one of several precious Shi’ite holy sites now under heavy guard. Ali says the Iraqi government is concerned about Kadhmiyah shrine in Baghdad and the Sayyid Mohammed shrine in the town of Dujail in northern Baghdad, which are more accessible to ISIS than holier sites in Karbala and Najaf, both south of Baghdad.

In remarks earlier this month, the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said that his group, which is already defending Shi’ite holy sites in Syria, might join the emerging fight in Iraq. “We are ready to sacrifice martyrs in Iraq five times more than what we sacrificed in Syria, in order to protect shrines, because they are much more important than [the holy sites in Syria],” Nasrallah reportedly told an audience.

The 2006 bombing of the Golden Dome Mosque in Samarra produced a horrific civil war with Iraq. But if ISIS manages to strike again at al-Aksari, or any one of several other Shi’ite holy sites in Iraq, the result could be an even wider conflict involving Iran and Hezbollah.

And that is something, as John Kerry put it, that we all do not want to see happen.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser