A year ago, the bombing of this city’s revered Shiite mosque set off a spasm of sectarian violence that has pushed the country toward a full-scale civil war. The mosque remains closed, its golden dome still a mound of rubble and wires amid the wave of hatred that has made renovation work too dangerous to begin.
Officials in the Sunni city and the Shiite-led government are hoping to change that with ambitious plans to bring in a brigade of Iraqi forces numbering some 2,500 to secure the site as well as the road leading south from Samarra to Baghdad.
“This bombing sparked the sectarianism,” said Samarra’s Mayor Mahmoud Khalef, a Sunni who has participated in a series of meetings in neighboring Jordan with UNESCO officials spearheading the reconstruction efforts. “Our goal is to rebuild the mosque as it was before, and we hope that will help bring an end to the sectarianism.”
He said the plan was for the security forces to be deployed to start securing the area in mid-April so experts can begin testing the soil and putting the scaffolding in place.
“The people of Samarra want to rebuild the mosque as soon as possible,” he said in an interview in his heavily guarded office. “This kind of place is very important for all the Muslims in the world, not just Shiites.”
More killing, more dying
But senior Iraqi police officials in the area were pessimistic about the timeframe as the city — a former Baath Party stronghold situated in the Sunni heartland some 60 miles north of Baghdad — faces daily shootings and mortar attacks by Sunni insurgents hiding on the outskirts.
Providing a fresh example of the violence that threatens to derail the project, a series of bombings killed more than 20 Iraqis on the eve of the anniversary, most in a suicide attack in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
The Askariya mosque contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams — Ali al-Hadi, who died in 868, and his son Hassan al-Askari, who died in 874. Both are descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, and Shiites consider them to be among his successors.
The shrine also is near the place where the 12th imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi, disappeared. Al-Mahdi, known as the “hidden imam,” was the son and grandson of the two imams buried in the Askariya shrine. Shiites believe he will return to Earth restore justice to humanity.
The mosque compound is largely intact with the blue and yellow arched entrance and a nearby dome as beautiful as ever — guarded by about 60 Federal Protection Service forces and 25 local Iraqi police who keep watch on the perimeter, according to city officials.
Vendors sell clothes and stuffed animals outside the tiled walls, and the aroma from the tea being brewed at a nearby cart wafts through the air.
But the tall wooden door under the arches is locked, and the rubble-strewn dome that now barely towers above it has been left a pile of dirt and wires with just a few golden tiles peeking out to offer a hint of its former splendor.
That’s despite promises in the immediate aftermath by the U.S. and others to help rebuild the landmark dome, which was completed in 1905.
That one of the most sacred sites for Shiites could be left in such a state has drawn outrage from clerics and regular Iraqis alike, highlighting the sectarian divisions that have hardened since the Feb. 22, 2006, bombing. Political disagreements and fears of violence have blocked restoration efforts.
“We cried with blood rather than just tears on that day, and what hurts us a lot is that the government has not done anything yet to rebuild the dome,” said Yassin Abdul-Amir, a 44-year-old Shiite taxi driver in Baghdad. “The attack shows the hatred in the hearts of these extremists toward us and even inside some normal Sunnis, and that we can’t live together again or regain the peace that we had.”
Calls mount for restoration
Shiite clerics and politicians have stepped up calls for the mosque’s restoration in connection with the anniversary, which was officially marked by the government on Feb. 12, according to the Islamic lunar calendar.
“The fact that the two shrines have been left for a year in this tragic condition is evidence of our predicament in Iraq,” Iraq’s most powerful Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim said this month.
National Interior Ministry spokesman Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said two brigades would be created — one from the Sunni-run Defense Ministry and the other from the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry, with members drawn from across the country. He said an initial $50 million has been set aside for the project, and the Baghdad-Samarra highway is expected to be adequately secure within the next two months.
Many local residents expressed fears that the brigade will be overwhelmingly Shiite and will only provoke more violence.
“I predict with this Samarra brigade coming, the attacks will increase,” Minal Younis al-Abbasi said as she sat outside with her three children while U.S. soldiers searched her house after a recent gunbattle. “We hope the situation will get better because we’re exhausted. We’re scared of everything, the terrorists along with the security forces who are fighting them.”
Bombing strikes a nerve
Iraq has been plagued by violence since the war started nearly four years ago, but the carefully orchestrated explosion in which al-Qaida assailants wearing uniforms set off two bombs at the Askariya mosque touched a nerve. The bombing unleashed Shiite militias who ignored appeals for calm and instead attacked Sunni clerics and mosques. Nearly 140 people were killed the next day.
The United Nations reported that 34,452 civilians lost their lives in 2006 in the nearly unfathomable sectarian bloodshed that has hit the capital hardest. Sunni insurgents have carried out bombings almost daily, and Shiite death squads have dumped dozens of corpses on the streets and in vacant lots.
As the death toll mounts, Iraqis who want to live in peace have pinned hopes on a major U.S.-backed security sweep aimed at pacifying the capital.
Hope amid dismay
Some Samarrans expressed hope that the focus on securing the area for the mosque reconstruction efforts would bring them a measure of peace as well.
“Maybe when the mosque is rebuilt, the violence will stop,” said Qusai Abdul-Kader, an Iraqi policeman who helps guard the area.
The Tigris River city had a prewar population of 250,000 that is now estimated by the U.S. military to be 90,000-120,000. The last of the small minority of Shiites and Kurds in the city are believed to have fled after the mosque bombing.
Some 1,500 displaced Sunnis from Baghdad, meanwhile, have sought refuge in the city, according to an estimate by the 2nd Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment that oversees the area.
“It’s very important to rebuild the golden mosque, but it’s even more important to rebuild the city,” said the Iraqi police commander in Samarra, Abdul Jalil Hanni.