Reconstruction of Samarra shrine unites factions in Iraq

By: By BRADLEY BROOKS
By: By BRADLEY BROOKS


SAMARRA, Iraq (AP) -- It was the bombing of a revered Shiite shrine here that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war, bloodshed that has left tens of thousands dead and this ancient city in ruins.

But reconstruction of the famed mosque amid the rubble filling this city is under way, once bitter Shiite and Sunni enemies jointly man checkpoints and locals hope tourists will return again to see the shrine and help save the economy.

"It's a beautiful thing that they are rebuilding the mosque," said Abdul Jabar Salah, an unemployed father of three standing in line on Tuesday outside the mayor's office, waiting to apply for a job helping with reconstruction of the shrine.

"We're hopeful that as the mosque rises, so, too, will our economic situation. All things, though, depend upon security," he said.

This city has long used the Tigris river to support a strong agricultural base - its sweet watermelons are a prized crop. But for decades, it was the Shiite tourists who trekked here to see the golden dome of the Askariya mosque who pumped life into the local economy.

All that ended in February 2006, when a huge explosion destroyed the dome of the mosque and immediately ignited fierce sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites across Iraq. In June 2007, another bombing brought down twin minarets on the mosque's compound, adding even more fury to the fighting.

Despite the recent history, Samarra is now one of the few - if not the only - Iraqi cities where several major security players work together with a semblance of harmony, largely because of the destruction of the sacred shrine.

National police controlled by the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry man the same checkpoints as Awakening Council fighters, Sunnis who once sided with al-Qaida but now work with Coalition forces.

An Iraqi army battalion comprised of Kurdish soldiers guards a security berm that encircles the city, while a separate mixed army battalion supports them. That mixed army battalion also works at checkpoints along with the national police, the Sunni fighters and local police as well.

How, in a town that once symbolized fiery sectarian warfare, did this occur?

"It was really a sequence of events," said Cpt. Juan Garcia, a 28-year-old from Miami, Fla. "But it has worked well - there is no shooting between the different forces. Everyone worked hard to get Samarra where it is."

The bombing of the mosque set in motion the sequence that Garcia referred to.

After the first attack, Iraqi police in Samarra were bolstered. After the second bombing that destroyed the minarets, national police were sent up from Baghdad.

Last May, a Sunni suicide car bomber targeted the local police headquarters, killing 12 officers, including the chief. That, Garcia said, spurred a bigger national police force to take over security of the mosque compound and more involvement from the Iraqi army in the city.

While a peaceful balance between such forces is always tenuous at best in Iraq, for the past three months an equilibrium has held in Samarra, U.S. soldiers said.

Which does not mean the city is by any means a bastion of safety.

Awakening Council members are routinely targeted by insurgents. A month ago, a suicide bomber drove a truck filled with explosives into the mayor's home, killing three security guards.

Yet there are signs of normalcy returning.

A modest business district has sprung up. Pedestrians and hordes of children on bicycles were on the city's streets and a four-hour American patrol rolling through the city was not fired upon once - a calm unheard of just a few months ago.

"Rebuilding the mosque will help bring civilization back to the city," said Ahmed Asaad, as he sold ice cream to a crowd of Iraqis and American soldiers. "But if we want to make the economy of Samarra good, the people have to stand on their own two legs and do the job."

Work on the mosque is now in the demolition phase. Shards of glass - entire walls of the mosque were made up of small, hand-cut mirrors - are littered everywhere. Bits of the gorgeous hand-painted tiles that once lined the inside of the dome are buried in the debris. Hundreds of pieces of gold sheeting that covered the dome sit in a corner of the compound.

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.

Restoring the shrine will cost an estimated $16 million, with $8 million coming from the European Union and $5 million more from the United Nations. The remaining $3 million will come from the Iraqi government.

Not all locals, however, are thrilled with the money going toward the shrine.

"I think you have to rebuild the city before you rebuild the mosque," said the owner of a flower shop who asked that his name not be used for security reasons. "We all love the mosque, but our basic needs are not being met."

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