U.S. Marines in a fierce battle for this Sunni Muslim stronghold fired rockets that hit a mosque compound filled with worshippers Wednesday, and witnesses said as many as 40 people were killed. Shiite-inspired violence spread to nearly all of the country.
An Associated Press reporter in Fallujah saw cars ferrying the dead and wounded from the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarrai mosque. Witnesses said a helicopter fired three missiles into the compound, destroying part of a wall surrounding the mosque but not damaging the main building.
The strike came as worshippers had gathered for afternoon prayers, witnesses said. Temporary hospitals were set up in private homes to treat the wounded and prepare the dead for burial.
The AP article quoted has an extensive summary of the fighting across Iraq as well.
There's a fair question to be asked as to why the situation has deteriorated this badly. The fact that a mosque was struck is, from the public relations perspective, a coup for the resistance to the occupation, because it legitimizes their rhetoric.
As Steven den Beste reminds us, it is impolite to correct your enemy when they are making a mistake (though of course SDB made the observation in a different context). In this case, we are Al-Qaeda's enemy and our presence in Iraq is the mistake, because it has made us uniquely vulnerable to their rhetoric of a war against Islam.
But we ARE in Iraq and the situation IS a quagmire - a bad situation from which withdrawal would immediately make things worse. If we left Iraq, then the result would be a Iran-style theocracy in short order. Muqtada al-Sadr's Iranian sympathizers are watching the Resistance with anticipation. Remember that Al-Qaeda's ties to Iran were always stronger than to the tenous Iraq connections asserted by Bush apologists. (for excellent documentation of Al-Qaeda's Iranian sponsorship, see Dan Darling's blog - links forthcoming).
George W. Bush's Administration remains committed to the nonsensical June 30th "handover" deadline, though the earlier promise of troop draw-down has been rescinded. For a thorough discussion of the problems imposed by the June 30th deadline, see Spencer Ackerman's latest entry on the Iraq'd blog at TNR. John Kerry's critique of the June 30th date is concise and cogent:
"I think the June 30 deadline is a fiction and they never should have set an arbitrary deadline, which almost clearly has been affected by the election schedule in the United States of America," Kerry told National Public Radio in an interview to be broadcast Wednesday.
"If all we do is make war against the Iraqi people and continue an American occupation fundamentally without a clarity to who and how sovereignty is being turned over, we have a very serious problem from the long run here and I think this administration is just walking dead center down into that trap," Kerry said.
"As I have said since day one, what you need is to minimize the perception and reality of an American occupation."
Kerry's last statement (emphasis mine) is the key to understanding why the Resistance has gone from mere rhetoric to shed blood - the Administration has taken a heavy handed and ideologically-driven approach to management of the Occupation itself. Consider these mis-steps:
1. Disbanding of the Iraq Army, resulting in hundreds of thousands of unemployed ex-military men with no means of income.
2. Recruitment of former Mukhabarat operatives to work within the Coalition Provisional Authority
3. Giving the Pentagon control over reconstruction funds, leading to enormous cost overruns for basic troop/equipment supplies such as gasoline and rations, and shutting out local Iraqi contractors from the bidding process
4. The aliennation of our democratic allies resulting in less resources to rebuild Iraq's still-crippled infrastructure
5. The schizophrenia of the Administration itself in reconciling the neo-con Defense Department with the traditionalist State Department.
All of this has helped feed the perception of the Occupation as an imperialist enterprise, not a truely benevolent one. Sadr was quite saavy in establishing a "shadow government" in direct opposition to the CPA, and by creating organizations that filled the void of basic services in the south and in Baghdad (his power base). But his political influence was still marginal until the Administration legitimized him, by targeting him. It's clear that closing down Sadr's newspaper, which granted was inflammatory and hostile to occupation, was a massive overstep, instantly undermining the claim that America seeks to support freedom of expression in the new Iraq. Going after Sadr's lieutenants likewise fed into Sadr's stature. It's clear that by escalating the issue, we pushed Sadr into an active role - one which he, as a paranoid firebrand whose father was persecuted and executed by Saddam, and whose people were abandoned by the former President Bush when they attempted to revolt - had assumed would happen anyway, and prepared accordingly. There was never any deep reservoir of benefit of the doubt for our (American) intentions, and our recent actions have only strengthened those suspicions into certainty.
For Sadr, and an increasing number of Shi'a, the perception of the Occupation is irrevocably changed. The bombing of the mosque compound will only increase Sadr's mindshare.