I'm standing on a street corner in the center of Samarra—a strife-scarred Sunni city of 120,000 people on the Tigris River in Iraq—surrounded by a squad of American troops. The crackle of two-way radios and boots crunching shards of glass are the only sounds in this deserted neighborhood, once the center of public life, now a rubble-filled wasteland. I pass the ruins of police headquarters, blown up by an Al Qaeda in Iraq suicide truck bomber in May 2007, and enter a corridor lined by eight-foot-high slabs of concrete—"Texas barriers" or "T-walls," in U.S. military parlance. A heavily guarded checkpoint controls access to the most sensitive edifice in the country: the Askariya Shrine, or Mosque of the Golden Dome, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam.
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Here, in February 2006, Al Qaeda militants blew up the delicate gold-tile dome atop the thousand-year-old Shiite shrine, igniting a spasm of sectarian killing that brought the country to the edge of civil war. For the past year and a half, a committee led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been working with United Nations consultants to clear debris from the site and to begin rebuilding the Golden Dome—a $16 million project that aims to restore the shrine sufficiently to receive Shiite pilgrims by this summer.
I've been trying for three days to get close to the shrine, stymied by an order from al-Maliki's office barring journalists from the site—an indication of how sensitive the bombing remains in this country. U.S. military officers in Samarra have pulled strings on my behalf with the mayor, Iraqi police officials and the Ministry of Planning in Baghdad. This time, after I reach the checkpoint, a friendly commander of the Askariya Brigade, a predominantly Shiite police force dispatched from Baghdad last year to guard the site, makes a call to his superiors in the Iraqi capital, then escorts me through.
As I approach the shrine in the 120-degree heat, I take in evidence of battles between U.S. troops and Al Qaeda that ripped Samarra apart for five years, making it, according to one U.S. general, "the most destroyed city in Iraq." I pass a bullet-pocked hotel, shuttered trinket and mobile-phone shops, and a closed madrassah, or Islamic school. Heaps of debris have been neatly laid along both sides of the road. The stump of the once-glorious dome is now covered with wooden scaffolding. A few golden tiles still cling to jagged remnants of the bruised and broken structure. Near the main gate of the Askariya Shrine, I see the first sign of activity in an otherwise moribund landscape: a bulldozer, laden with fragments of the dome, rumbles through the portal toward a dumping ground nearby.
A dozen laborers bustle about the courtyard, which is filled with broken pillars and chunks of concrete bristling with exposed rebar. The whine of a pneumatic drill and the rhythmic pounding of a hammer resound from inside the shrine. "We have 120 workers on the site, working day and night, in two 12-hour shifts," Haidar al-Yacoubi tells me. A Shiite from Baghdad who has served as a technical adviser to the project since April, he adds: "Al Hamdulillah [praise God], the dome will rise again."
For nearly 11 centuries, the Askariya Shrine has been revered by Shiite Muslims as a symbol of sacrifice and martyrdom. The original building was constructed in A.D. 944, as the final resting place for Ali al-Hadi and his son, Hassan al-Askari, Shiite imams who had lived under house arrest—and were allegedly poisoned—at the military camp of the Sunni caliph al-Mu'tasim, when Samarra was the capital of the Islamic world. In 1905, the 150-foot dome, covered in 72,000 gold tiles and surrounded by pale-blue walls, was built above the shrine, signifying its importance; many of the faithful regard only the mosques of Najaf and Karbala as holier. Enhancing the sanctity of the compound is the adjacent Blue Mosque, built over a sardhab, or cellar, where Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Twelfth or Hidden Imam, withdrew and then disappeared in the ninth century. Shiites believe that al-Mahdi will one day rise from his "crypt" below the mosque, ushering in man's redemption and the end of the world.
For many Shiites, something close to the end of the world occurred on the morning of February 22, 2006, after eight Al Qaeda terrorists disguised in Iraqi military uniforms entered the shrine, overpowered guards, fixed explosives to the golden dome and blew it to pieces. The attack was a key part of Al Qaeda's strategy to foment civil war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, thereby sowing chaos, driving out occupying U.S. forces and turning the country into a fundamentalist caliphate. No one was killed in the attack, but within hours, as Al Qaeda's leadership had hoped, the violent spiral began: Shiite militants set fire to at least two dozen Sunni mosques in Baghdad and killed three imams. Sunnis retaliated by killing Shiites. Soon Baghdad—and much of the rest of Iraq—was caught in a vicious cycle of car bombings, kidnappings, murders and ethnic cleansing. By the end of that year, more than 10,000 people had died across the country. Samarra, meanwhile, sank deeper into destitution and despair, neglected by the Shiite-dominated government, avoided by contractors, and fought over by U.S. forces and a range of insurgent groups. "The city was dead," Mahmoud al-Bazzi, mayor of Samarra, tells me.
Today, however, after thousands of former Sunni insurgents came over to the American side; the "surge" of 30,000 U.S. troops ordered by President George W. Bush in early 2007 increased security; and a wave of successful U.S. and Iraqi strikes against Al Qaeda in Iraq put the terrorists on the defensive, the worst of Iraq's violence appears to be over. In Samarra, markets have come back to life and playgrounds are filled with children. And the very symbol of the country's descent into sectarian carnage—the Askariya Shrine—has brought together Sunnis and Shiites in a rebuilding effort. The endeavor, city officials and U.S. soldiers alike hope, will bring back hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from Iran, the Gulf States and beyond; restore Samarra's economic fortunes; and narrow Iraq's sectarian rift. "Rebuilding a Shia mosque in the heartland of the Sunni insurgency would have been unthinkable" less than a year ago, says Lt. Col. J. P. McGee, commander of the Second Battalion, 327th Infantry, based in Samarra since October 2007. "That's a powerful symbol of how Iraq has changed."
But peace in Samarra, as in the rest of Iraq, remains fragile. The city has become, in effect, a giant prison, isolated by an encircling berm, and divided by mazes of T-walls and sandbagged checkpoints. Remnants of Al Qaeda lurk in the surrounding desert, still recruiting among Samarra's youth and waiting for opportunities to strike. Prime Minister al-Maliki, deeply suspicious of Sunni paramilitary units outside the jurisdiction of the Shiite-dominated government, has moved to take control of the former insurgents, known as the Sons of Iraq, and drastically reduce their numbers. The Sons of Iraq have asserted that if they don't receive jobs—either in the Iraqi security forces or in public works projects—they could take up arms again. Should that happen, the tenuous security in Samarra that has made the shrine project possible could collapse overnight. Moreover, the effort itself, although showcased by the government as a powerful example of reconciliation, has been mired in political gamesmanship and sectarian suspicion for the past year, and its success is by no means assured.
I flew into Samarra by Black Hawk military helicopter from Baghdad on a steamy night early this past September, sweeping low over the Tigris River for much of the 70-mile, 45-minute journey. Although attacks against coalition forces have dropped dramatically, moving anywhere in the country remains risky: the next morning, I made the short journey from the airfield to the city in a vehicle called an MRAP (for mine-resistant ambush protected), a 38,000-pound armored behemoth with a 12-foot-high turret topped by a 50-caliber machine gun. The intimidating truck—also known as a Cayman—was introduced by the U.S. Army last February here in Salahuddin province to replace the Humvee, which is far more vulnerable to attacks by IEDs—improvised explosive devices. "The MRAPs have saved a lot of lives," a specialist riding in my Cayman told me. But they aren't foolproof: on July 9, 2008, Sgt. First Class Steven Chevalier—driving a Cayman through central Samarra—was killed by an RKG3 thermal grenade, a handheld canister filled with flammable pellets capable of penetrating armor. On August 15, a second RKG3 exploded inside another Cayman, critically burning four U.S. soldiers.