WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday that the U.S. has no "hard evidence" that the Sunni Muslim insurgent group al Qaida in Iraq was responsible for the recent bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, although Bush administration officials cite the attack as proof that al Qaida in Iraq is stoking sectarian violence.
It "seems to me that that's probably an analytical conclusion. I'm not sure whether they have a lot of hard evidence about it," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon.
His comments come as the Bush administration has renewed its focus on Iraqi insurgents who claim to be affiliated with al Qaida. In a speech Thursday, President Bush called al Qaida the biggest threat in Iraq and said that al Qaida in Iraq was the same group that was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. U.S. military spokesmen in Iraq also have begun citing al Qaida in Iraq more often after years of downplaying its importance.
On Friday, Gates said the June 13 attack on the al Askariya mosque in Samarra was one reason why U.S. forces are targeting the group.
"I believe that it is al Qaida that has done the most in terms of trying to stoke sectarian violence, from the bombing of the Samarra mosque a year ago February to the second bombing of the mosque just a couple of weeks ago, and to try and provoke exactly the kind of reaction that happened after February of last year," Gates said. "So I think that at least in terms of the combat operations that we're conducting now, the principal enemy that they are facing is in fact al Qaida."
But when a McClatchy reporter asked him about the assertion, Gates said that he knew of no hard evidence linking al Qaida in Iraq to the explosion.
Since January, when Bush announced plans to increase U.S. forces in Iraq, administration officials have blamed the first bombing of the shrine in February 2006 on al Qaida and called it the starting point for Iraq's sectarian warfare.
However, relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims deteriorated throughout 2005, when death squad killings were increasing. Moreover, U.S. intelligence and military officials say the ties between al Qaida in Iraq and Osama bin Laden are murky, at best, and they believe that al Qaida in Iraq is only a fraction of the problem there.
No organization has claimed responsibility for the mosque attack, although Iraq's national security adviser Mowafil al Rubaie announced four months after the blast that a Tunisian, Yousri Fakher Mohammed Ali, had been arrested. Rubai said Ali confessed to the crime, though it's unclear whether he was ever formally charged.
According to Rubaie, the attack was planned by the Iraqi leader of an al Qaida cell, Haitham al Badri, who remains at large. He said that Badri and five others rounded up the mosque guards, bound them and spent hours planting explosives in the mosque's gold dome, which was shattered by the bombing.
No such account is available of the second bombing, which toppled the shrine's two remaining minarets, and U.S. officials have been careful in describing al Qaida's involvement in the second bombing. In his Thursday speech, Bush said the bombing "had all the hallmarks of al Qaida," while U.S. military officials in Baghdad say they have "indications" al Qaida was responsible.
Al Qaida hasn't stepped forward to claim responsibility for the explosion. In a blog posted on a Web site commonly used by al Qaida, one man scoffed at the suggestion that the group was involved. The blogger said al Qaida would have hit the shrine at midday, not at dawn, to maximize causalities.