Samarra Rises

In Iraq, the restoration of the shattered Mosque of the Golden Dome brings together Sunnis and Shiites in an unlikely alliance

Scaffolding covers the reconstructed golden dome. With help from the U.N. and the Iraqi prime minister's office, workers are rebuilding the sacred Shiite site. (Max Becherer / Polaris Images)
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We crossed the Tigris over a dam; just downstream, hundreds of Iraqis were trying to beat the oppressive heat by swimming off a sandy bank. Soon we arrived at Patrol Base Olson, a Saddam-era casino built along the river and cut off from the rest of the city by rows of T-walls. This heavily fortified compound is the home of the 150 soldiers of Charlie Company, which has led the fight against Al Qaeda in Samarra, recruited fighters from the Sons of Iraq and helped secure the area around the Askariya Shrine. We pulled into the compound in a cloud of dust, and I stepped from the vehicle into a parking lot littered with bullet casings and crushed, half-empty water bottles. Inside the former casino—now Charlie Company's weapons depot, cafeteria, Internet café and Tactical Operations Center (TOC)—I was welcomed by Capt. Joshua Kurtzman, 29, the company commander. An army officer's son and West Point graduate who crossed from Kuwait with the original invasion force, Kurtzman was now serving his third tour in Iraq.

Sitting in his cluttered office at the TOC—one of the few corners of Patrol Base Olson with functioning air conditioning—Kurtzman recounted the marathon U.S. effort to bring Samarra under control during the past five years. U.S. forces arrived in the city in April 2003 and faced a growing insurgency within six months. A succession of U.S. offensives killed hundreds of militants and destroyed large parts of the city. But U.S. attempts to drive out the insurgents never succeeded. By late 2005, Al Qaeda controlled Samarra, with U.S. troops safe only inside Patrol Base Olson and a heavily fortified "Green Zone" adjacent to it.

Kurtzman recalled the dark days of Al Qaeda's rule in the city: militants cruised the streets with antiaircraft machine guns mounted on white Toyota pickup trucks. Public executions were held in Samarra's main market. Contractors, shopkeepers, even Sunni imams, were forced to hand over salaries to the militants. Ninety percent of the 40 or so fuel trucks destined for Samarra every few days were hijacked by Al Qaeda, their contents sold on the black market for up to $50,000 per truckload. In June 2007, militants again infiltrated the Askariya Shrine and blew apart the minarets. A month earlier, a suicide truck bomber had attacked police headquarters, killing the commander and 11 of his troops, and driving the rest of the force—700 men—out of the city. "We were fighting daily with Al Qaeda," said Kurtzman. "We had nine IEDs in a three-hour period on [one road through town]. Every patrol we went on, we were in a firefight or were encountering IEDs."

Then, in December 2007, the Iraqi government and its U.S. allies began to take back the city. The troops raised watchtowers and secured a berm that had been built around the city in 2005. Beginning a few months earlier, the Iraqi government had begun dispatching a national police brigade—4,000 strong—made up of both Sunnis and Shiites, along with a Kurdish battalion of the Iraqi Army. U.S. troops entered negotiations with Sunni insurgents, who had become fed up with Al Qaeda's tactics—including setting off car bombs inside Samarra. "Al Qaeda wanted to fight everybody," Abu Mohammed, leader of the Sons of Iraq in Samarra, told me. "They killed a lot of innocent people, from all levels of society." A deal was signed last February, and 2,000 Sunni fighters—many of whom had spent years arming IEDs to kill American troops—were given one to three days of weapons training.

The Sons of Iraq manned checkpoints and began feeding their new U.S. allies intelligence. "They'd say, 'My brother, who lives in this neighborhood, told me there's a cache here and there are six guys guarding it,'" Kurtzman recounted. U.S. and Iraqi forces conducted pinpoint raids, engaged Al Qaeda in firefights and, in time, drove its members out of Samarra. In an innovation first tried in Anbar province, U.S. troops also undertook a census of Samarra, registering every adult male in the city, scanning irises and taking fingerprints. According to U.S. Army data, hostile actions against American troops dropped from 313 in July 2007 to 5 in October 2008. "I sit here now and say, 'Man, I wish we'd thought of this two years ago,'" says Capt. Nathan Adams, who was based in Samarra in 2005 also. "But we were not ready then, and the Iraqi [insurgents] were not either. They needed to fight the superpower, to save face, then negotiate back to the middle ground." After six months of cooperation, "Al Qaeda's cells are dormant," Kurtzman told me. "They are hiding out in the middle of the desert, just trying to survive."

One evening I toured Samarra with Kurtzman and a platoon of soldiers from Charlie Company. We climbed into three Caymans and rumbled into the moonless night; the delicate turquoise dome of the Blue Mosque, bathed in fluorescent light, loomed just beyond the patrol base. It was the first week of Ramadan, and the streets were nearly deserted; most people were still at home for iftar, the feast at sundown that breaks the dawn-to-dusk fast. Only a few groceries, textile shops and restaurants were open, lit by small generators. Samarra's sporadic electricity was out again—no surprise in a city with few functioning services. "The Iraqi provincial government put half a million dollars into a water treatment plant, but there's no chlorine, so you might as well be drinking the Tigris with a straw," Kurtzman told me.

We dismounted and walked up the road to the main Sunni mosque in Qadisiya, an affluent quarter dominated during Saddam's time by high-level Baathists and army officers. Just a few months ago, Kurtzman said, troops returning to base from firefights with the militants would hear the muezzin call for jihad against America. But the main council of Sunni mosques in Iraq fired the imam last winter, and the radical messages stopped. "Six months ago, I would not have been standing right here," says Kurtzman. "I'd have been shot at." A crowd of children from an adjacent playground—a provincial government project completed a month ago—gathered around the platoon, along with a few adults. Kurtzman chatted them up, his interpreter by his side.

"It's good to see everybody outside tonight."

The kids clustered excitedly, trying out a few words of English, hoping for a pen or another small gift. "This must be the hottest place on earth right now," Kurtzman said. "The weather in Saudi Arabia is 105. It's 120 degrees here."

The men murmured their assent.


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