Earlier this month, a U.S. commander in Iraq - Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil Jr. - described the nightmare that keeps him up at night: a "major, Samarra-mosque-type catastrophe" together with a failure of Iraqi security forces.
At least part of that nightmare came true on Wednesday. Suspected al-Qaeda insurgents destroyed the two minarets that remained of the same mosque where a bombing shattered the famous Golden Dome in February 2006 and unleashed a wave of sectarian violence. The mosque, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, is in the Sunni town of Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad.
Having failed to secure the mosque against a second bombing, U.S. and Iraqi leaders are scrambling to prevent a rampage by Shiites taking revenge on Sunnis. Troops rushed to Samarra. Curfews were placed on that town and Baghdad. The revered Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for restraint. Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr blamed the United States and urged peaceful demonstrations. But similar pleas and measures in February of last year weren't able to forestall the deeper slide toward civil war.
If, as appears likely, the latest bombing was carried out by al-Qaeda, the intent is plain: to foment sectarian violence and allow the terror group to gain a foothold. Any moves by fellow Sunnis toward political reconciliation undermine that effort. Indeed, some Sunni leaders have recently been working more with the U.S. military and turning against ruthless al-Qaeda outsiders.
For the Iraqis, this second Samarra bombing, though less shocking than the first, is a test of whether they can somehow prevent full-scale civil war. U.S. forces can only do so much to tamp that down in the absence of political reconciliation.
For the United States, the bombing underscored just how urgent it is to nail down a plan in which U.S. forces are engaged first and foremost in fighting al-Qaeda and disengaged from the sectarian violence among Iraqi factions.
Publicly, at least, that isn't happening. Gen. David Petraeus, the overall U.S. commander in Iraq, is set to report on the ongoing troop surge in September. Although President Bush has characterized that report as critical, White House spokesman Tony Snow tried Wednesday to dial back expectations, calling September "the first opportunity to have a little bit of a metric."
The truth is, the verdict on the surge could come before then. Petraeus told USA TODAY that Wednesday's bombing could unleash a new wave of sectarian bloodletting. Iraq's divided leaders already aren't meeting the benchmarks asked of them. Iraqi security forces, though improved, are still riddled with sectarianism and corruption.
If Maj. Gen. Fil's nightmare unfolds, the "see you in September" strategy might well be overtaken by events long before then.