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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"So how much power are you getting here? Two hours on, five hours off?"

"Maybe a couple of hours during the day, a couple of hours at night. That's all."

A Sons of Iraq member stepped forward and began complaining about his employment prospects. I had been told that under intense pressure from the Iraqi government, the U.S. Army had dropped 200 Sunni fighters from its payroll in just the past month and would have to lay off another thousand in the months to come. In addition, salaries, now at $300 a month, were being renegotiated and could drop by a third. "There's a lot of anxiety out there," Kurtzman told me, as we climbed back into the Cayman.

From its earliest days, the effort to rebuild the Askariya Shrine has been beset by the violence and sectarian tensions that tormented so much of Iraq. Immediately after the bombing, then-Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, called for United Nations help in restoring it. A few weeks later, Unesco representatives in Paris and Amman, Jordan, agreed to underwrite an Iraqi proposal to train Iraqi technicians and architects, and help rebuild not only the shrine, but Sunni mosques and churches across Iraq. In April 2006, a team from the Iraqi Ministry of Planning set out for Samarra by road for the first on-site assessment. The trip was aborted, however, after word reached the team that an ambush was planned by Al Qaeda. For months afterward, "We searched for international experts to go there, but the reaction was, 'No way,'" Mohamed Djelid, director of Unesco in Iraq, told me.

In June 2007, Unesco awarded a contract to Yuklem, a Turkish construction company, to conduct a feasibility study and make initial preparations—cleaning and production of architectural drawings—for the dome's reconstruction. "They sent one expert to Samarra, two times," Djelid said. Then came the destruction of the minarets in June 2007, which frightened off the Turks and made even some Unesco officials skittish about staying involved. "I myself was hesitating about whether Unesco should put our experts in this kind of situation," Djelid said. "But if we stopped, we were concerned about the consequences. What kind of message would that send?" Late that year came another setback: Turkish troops began pushing into Kurdish Iraq in pursuit of PKK Kurdish separatist guerrillas. In the face of an anti-Turkish backlash in Iraq, Yuklem became even more reluctant to send its technicians to Samarra.

But in December 2007, a small team of Unesco experts from across the Muslim world—Egyptians, Turks and Iranians—arrived in Samarra and set up an office near the Askariya Shrine. "The shrine was a mess, it was catastrophic, it was clear it was going to be a big challenge," said Djelid. Then the contract with the Turkish company, which had failed to begin work on the risky mission, was canceled. Al-Maliki appointed a task force to take control of the feasibility study, clear the site, and stabilize and protect what remained of the Golden Dome. But while the reconstruction project has been gaining momentum, it still remains enmeshed in sectarian politics. Some Sunnis in Samarra believe that al-Maliki's committee is acting as a front for Tehran, and that the presence of Iranians on the Unesco team is part of a plot to impose Shiite dominance in a Sunni city. "The Iranians have taken over this project," charges Suhail Najm Abed, a local Unesco consultant. "We threw out Al Qaeda, but we are bringing in another Hezbollah," referring to the Lebanese Shiite guerrilla group funded by Iran. For his part, Djelid defends using Iranian engineers: "[They] have a lot of expertise," he says. "When we discuss it with the population of Samarra, most tell us, 'If the Iranians are coming under the umbrella of Unesco, we have no problem.'"

Meanwhile, Unesco has been engaged in a debate with the Iraqi government about whether to rebuild the dome with modern materials or to remain faithful to the original construction, which could prolong the project by years. No one can predict with certainty when the dome will rise again. Unesco says that it expects only clean-up efforts and surveying to be completed by this summer.

On my last evening in Samarra, Kurtzman took me to meet Abu Mohammed, a former insurgent commander turned Sons of Iraq leader. As the muezzin from an adjacent mosque was blaring the post-iftar call to prayer, we pulled up in three Caymans to a handsome villa in Qadisiya. Abu Mohammed—an imposing and lean-faced man in his early 50s, clad in a white dishdasha, or traditional robe—greeted us in his courtyard and motioned for us to sit on plastic chairs arranged in a circle. Half a dozen other members of the Sons of Iraq welcomed us, including Abu Farouk, a hawk-nosed chain smoker and former tank driver in the Iran-Iraq war. Kurtzman had told me earlier that Abu Mohammed had led mortar teams against U.S. troops at the height of the Iraq insurgency, drawing on his experience as a rocket battalion commander in the Iraqi Army under Saddam. "In every country being occupied, there will be resistance," the former insurgent now began, balancing his 5-year-old son, Omar, in his lap. "And this is the legal right for any nation."

Abu Mohammed told me that his Sunni fighters had joined forces with the Americans last February only after their overtures to the Iraqi government had been rebuffed. "The U.S. was our last option," he acknowledged. "When the Americans came to this city, we didn't have a shared enemy. But now we have an enemy which both sides want to fight." The cooperation had been fruitful, Abu Mohammed said, yet he was concerned about the future. Al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government was about to take control of the 53,000 Sunni fighters in Baghdad, and would soon turn its attention to Anbar and Salahuddin provinces. Despite talk of integrating the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces, he said, "we've tried to get the government to hire some of our fighters as policemen. But until now we didn't see a single person hired."

Kurtzman confirmed that even though Samarra's police force is woefully understrength, the Iraqi government was dragging its feet in hiring. "A Shia-dominated central government in a city that blew up one of the holiest shrines in the Shia world has a lot of bitterness against the people [of Samarra]," Kurtzman said. "That's why, in nine months, you haven't gotten police hired from here." Abu Mohammed insisted that his men were committed to peace, that rebuilding the shrine would benefit everyone in Samarra. But stability, he said, depended on jobs for the Sons of Iraq, and "we don't trust the Iraqi government."

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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