Appointment in Samarra

Somerset Maugham tells the story in one of his plays but it is obviously based on an older, archetypal tale on the inevitability of Fate. Once upon a time, the story goes, the servant of a merchant bumped against someone in Baghdad’s bazaar. As he turned, he saw that that person was Death, who had taken on the form of a woman and who made a threatening gesture. The servant rushed back to the merchant. «Master, lend me your horse so that I can escape,» he begged, describing his meeting. «Let me ride to Samarra, where Death will not find me.» The merchant lent him his horse and the servant rode off. The merchant then went to the bazaar and accosted Death. «Why did you threaten my servant?» he asked. «I did not threaten him,» Death replied. «I was merely surprised to see him here because we have an appointment in Samarra tonight.» The servant, in trying to escape, had submitted to destiny as surely as an insect would entangle itself in the strands of a web in which it will be trapped and eaten by a spider. This story sprang to mind with the recent updating of the «appointment» in Samarra: The bomb attack which destroyed one of the most important Shi’ite shrines, the golden-domed Askariya mosque, on February 22. The culprits of this most cynical provocation have not claimed responsibility. But few would doubt that their aim was to provoke civil war between Iraq’s Shi’ites and Sunni Muslims. The group headed by the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has stated clearly that it is gunning for Shiites because of their cooperation with the US-led occupation. A generalized civil war would force the occupation forces either to leave or to hide in their well-fortified camps, allowing Zarkawi and his followers to proclaim victory against the infidel. The problem for Zarqawi’s followers is that the Shi’ites, who are a minority everywhere except for Iran and southern Iraq, suffered so much under the regime of Saddam Hussein that they are not about to throw away the chance of gaining control over the whole of Iraq, a chance given them by the American occupation. Therefore, the Sunnis – who are ostensibly being «protected» by Zarqawi – have become the targets of a brutal hunt. More than 500 people, mostly Sunnis, have died in sectarian violence since the attack in Samarra. We can only imagine what will happen to Zarqawi and his ilk if the Shi’ite militias get their hands on them. One of the most characteristic features of a successful terrorist attack is – after the fact – how much sense such an attack makes, making us all wonder why such an obvious target was not guarded more carefully. The destruction of such an important site as the shrine in Samarra is no exception. It was guarded by a few men, allowing the unidentified commandos to eliminate them easily before destroying the building. We can guess that this was the result of shortsightedness by those responsible for the shrine’s security. But we might also hypothesize that maybe someone thought it was not such a bad idea if the Sunni insurgents might be tricked into carrying out such a provocation that it would result in a pogrom against Sunnis and whoever else is not in favor of a Shi’ite-dominated Iraq. That would be a fitting variation on the theme of the «appointment in Samarra,» in which those who set out to harm the Shi’ites turned into prey themselves. Above all, though, the sacrilege in Samarra reminds us once again of the deadly mistake of George Bush’s intervention in Iraq. America rushed into the hornet’s nest under the pretext of its having to root out Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and to stop him cooperating with terrorists. When no such weapons were found, Bush said that the invasion was necessary in order to liberate the country from Saddam and to establish peace and democracy across the Middle East. Now Iraq is on the brink of civil war, with all that further chaos will entail for the region. Members of the Iraqi resistance and terrorists allied to al Qaeda are getting seasoned by their fight against America and inspiring others elsewhere. Iran is now master of the game in the region and is moving inevitably toward acquiring the know-how to create nuclear weapons. What America tried to prevent is becoming inevitable. The outcome of George W. Bush’s appointment in Iraq is still unknown.