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Shiite shrine expansion pushes out Sunni neighbors

Scaffolding remains around the dome and minaret of the al-Askari shrine as Shiite pilgrims pay a visit in Samarra, north of Baghdad, Iraq.
Scaffolding remains around the dome and minaret of the al-Askari shrine as Shiite pilgrims pay a visit in Samarra, north of Baghdad, Iraq. Khalid Mohammed / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in this Sunni city in central Iraq opened the worst chapter of the war, two years of sectarian bloodshed.

Five years after its destruction, the iconic dome of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra is nearly rebuilt — but it's the focus of a fresh sectarian dispute over Shiites' expansion plans for the site.

Shiite authorities are buying up nearby Sunni homes with the intent of tearing them down to make room for hotels, restaurants and other amenities for pilgrims. Sunnis say there's little financial benefit for them in any of this. They contend that the construction jobs are going to Shiites and that pilgrims are herded away from the surrounding community.

"The problem is that you, as a Samarra local, you have no contact with the pilgrims," said Jaafar Hamid, a resident.

"We have unemployment. We should feel some progress because of the construction and the expansion. But we haven't felt anything," said Shaker Mahmood, who sells trinkets to pilgrims.

The dispute is a reflection of Sunni frustration across Iraq — shunted aside in a country where Shiite politicians now dominate the government, control public spending and actively promote the symbols of their community. Shiite banners hang in many government offices, and Shiite religious sites are expanding.

Hammers are banging and drills are buzzing outside the al-Askari shrine, building what will eventually be an expanded enclosure to house thousands more pilgrims.

It's a very different story at a prominent Sunni archaeological site on the edge of town. The Great Mosque of Samarra was at one time the largest mosque in the world, and its 52-meter-high (170-foot-high) minaret is so synonymous with Iraq's history that it's pictured on bank notes. But only a handful of brave foreign tourists this year have visited the site, which is closed to visitors.

'Hidden imam'
Al-Askari is one of Iraq's four major Shiite shrines that draw pilgrims from across the Shiite world — 2 million are expected to visit the country in 2011. The three other shrines are located in Shiite cities of southern Iraq, but Samarra's residents and its local government are almost exclusively Sunnis.

Sunni militants struck the al-Askari shrine on Feb. 22, 2006, destroying its dome, in hopes of sparking a wave of sectarian violence. They were horrifyingly successful. Shiite militias unleashed a campaign of bloodshed against Sunnis, who responded in turn. Thousands were killed, neighbors turned against neighbors, and Iraq nearly spiraled into outright Sunni-Shiite civil war.

The shrine is revered because it contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams, the 9th century saint-like figures who were considered the leaders of the community. The shrine also marks the birthplace of the 12th imam, known as the Mahdi. Shiites consider the Mahdi the "hidden imam," a messianic figure who disappeared but will one day return, signifying the Day of Judgment.

Authorities began rebuilding the shrine in 2008. The new golden dome, its most distinctive feature, is now nearly complete. The dome is still covered in scaffolding but under the wooden beams the rows of golden bricks climb higher and higher.

Inside the shrine, imported green marble lines the lower part of the walls. Pilgrims kneel in devotion or rub Qurans against the green enclosure housing the tombs of two Shiite saints. In the corners, gouges caused by the 2006 bomb blasts remain, covered with see-through plastic so pilgrims will always be reminded of the threat to the shrine.

Pilgrims come to Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, only for the day and spend the night in other, safer cities. They are still attacked by Sunni militants on their way to the shrine, and the area is one of the more dangerous in Iraq.

For the few hours they spend in the city, the thousands of pilgrims arriving each day move through an almost completely parallel universe from the Sunni residents living nearby.

They get off their bus, then walk or take small trucks through the numerous security checkpoints to reach the shrine grounds. They rarely visit the nearby shops or the roughly 30 hotels that used to be open in the city and now are shuttered.

Officials from the Shiite Endowment, a government body tasked with running Shiite shrines and mosques, insist they want the new restaurants and hotels being built to be locally owned. But Sunnis say most of the jobs and economic benefits from the shrine are going to people the Endowment brings in.

City officials in Samarra accuse the Endowment of violating an agreement to limit the expansion of the shrine's territory to about 80 meters (yards). They say the Endowment has been buying houses as far as 200 meters (yards) away.

"The expansion idea is a plan sponsored by the Shiite Endowment, and it was imposed on Samarra locals," said Lt. Col. Ghayath Sami, one of the top security officials in the city.

In Samarra's old city, which surrounds the shrine, the tight maze of alleyways has numerous houses that now stand empty after their owners sold to the Endowment. Security measures for the shrine bar vehicles from entering the area, and neglect is clear. Water and refuse run through the dirt alleys. Sunnis must pass through security checks to get to and from their homes, and high concrete barriers separate them from the shrine and from other parts of the city.

In this Friday, May 29, 2011 photo, scaffolding remains at the entrance to the al-Askari shrine as Shiite pilgrims pay a visit in Samarra, 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq. Above the town of Samarra rises a site that few people who lived through Iraq's vicious sectarian conflict would have thought possible: the golden dome of the al-Askari shrine is almost rebuilt. The day the shrine was blown up _ Feb. 22, 2006 _ marked the nadir of the war in Iraq. Sunni militants intent on setting off Shiite-Sunni violence struck at one of the most holy sites for Iraq's majority Shiite community: a shrine holding the remains of religious leaders who Shiites consider a core part of their faith. (AP Photo/Khalid Miohammed)Khalid Mohammed / AP

"The area within the blast walls, it's like we are in a small prison," said Abdul Hadi Hameed Ali.

The head of the Shiite Endowment, Saleh al-Haidari, said the only neighbors who oppose the expansion are those who haven't gotten offers to buy their property.

"Samarra residents hope that the expansion goes farther so that the purchase of property will increase," al-Haidari said.

Many of the Sunnis complain that the jobs associated with the shrine and the reconstruction have gone to outsiders, but officials overseeing the reconstruction insist Samarra residents are employed.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for many of Samarra's residents is their inability to cash in on the pilgrim trade. They read about the lucrative building booms that have taken place in two southern, Shiite-majority shrine cities, Karbala and Najaf, and hoped the same would happen for them.

Long ago, before the bombing and the war and the checkpoints, Sunnis felt a much closer connection to the al-Askari shrine. It was a part of their lives, as opposed to what now feels like an implanted, pet project of Shiite leaders.

"In the old times when there is a wedding party in Samarra, the couples used to visit ... to receive blessings, but now Samarra locals are deprived of this," said Omar Mohammed, a member of the Samarra city council. He said they're not barred from entering. They just don't feel welcome.


Associated Press writer Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.