Restoring Iraq's Golden Mosque in Samarra

Viewed from the rooftop of a nearby building, the men restoring Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra are mere specks, working at a Herculean task. The once majestic golden dome that terrorists destroyed two and a half years ago remains a rough and dull concrete block ringed by scaffolding. Elsewhere in the country, the sectarian bloodletting that was unleashed by the mosque bombing has abated--and even here, city officials are eager to show off a vastly improved security situation. But it's clear from Al-Askari's still-ruined minarets just how far Iraq has to go.

Reporters from a handful of Iraqi news outlets snap pictures and interview Samarra residents while touring the city in American military MRAP vehicles. They stop at the court house, hospital, mayor's office and of course, this shrine that Shiites and other Muslims have held sacred for centuries. A little over a year since a second attack brought down the mosque's two minarets, Samarra is being shown off as an emerging success story in Iraq's recovery.

The signs of a comeback are visible around Samarra. That's not to minimize the signs of recovery. Shops are open now in Samarra's main market area, where mounds of fresh produce pile up on stalls. Women once again shop for dried apricots, beans and nuts at the grocery owned by Abdul Salim Sarhan Dayab al-Abassi. He can now safely buy stock from as far away as Baghdad and Kirkuk. There have been no significant insurgent attacks in the city since early in the year. A month-old wing at the local hospital, funded by the United Nations, offers top-drawer emergency and surgical care. Samarra Mayor Mahmood Khalif Ahmed al-Bazzi says a new power station is being built, along with several public schools. The trash is being collected, at least in some neighborhoods. "We're trying again to bring life to Samarra," says Mahmood, a dour but earnest former fighter pilot. He talks about a five-year development plan that will kick off in 2009 and says Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office has pledged $25 million.

From the look of things, though, the city will need a lot more money. Large pockets of the business district are a ghost town. The Americans have placed massive T-walls between the street and storefronts to deter car bombers, asphyxiating dozens of businesses. Tourism, once a major source of revenue, has not rebounded since the February 2006 bombing. The mosque itself is still surrounded by mounds of excavated rubble; the dome will need years and millions of dollars to be restored to its former glory. Security may be greatly improved, but not to the extent that people from nearby towns feel comfortable coming back to shop in areas like Muthasim, where merchants sit outside their businesses waiting in vain for customers. It is premature to say Samarra is on the rebound, just as it would be overenthusiastic to say Iraq has left violence behind.

Protection of life and property in the city has deepened. Early on the morning of Feb. 22, 2006, gunmen slipped into the Al-Askari Mosque, tied up the guards and set the explosives that destroyed the dome. The bombers who destroyed Al-Askari--presumed but never proven to be members of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)--wore Iraqi Security Forces uniforms. Nowadays, two different Army units guard the compound. The unit that protects the interior of the property reports to the prime minister's office. "We have had no attacks against people or the mosque since the second bombing. We are taking no chances," says Lt. Col. Salim A. Hasson, head of the National Police's Third Al-Askari Battalion. Insurgents still operate in the city--elements of groups like AQI and Jaish-al-Islamiya as well as the lesser known Jaish-al-Naqshbandi, a nationalist militia centered near Kirkuk. "Some insurgents and criminal groups have come back in, and we frankly are working overtime to determine who and what those threats are," says Lt. Col. J. P. McGee, the American commanding officer of nearby Patrol Base Olsen. He says security in the city probably is "80 to 90 percent."

Much of the credit must go to the Sons of Iraq, the group made up mostly of Sunnis--a good number of them former insurgents--who have been fighting Al Qaeda alongside the Americans and the ISF. Paid about $300 a month each by the U.S. military, the paramilitaries run checkpoints and provide security in the city. Some Sons of Iraq have branched out into the vast desert west of Samarra and the area around Lake Tharthar, where they work for half the U.S. salaries plus equipment. Much of the money is donated by Iraqis. A total of 2,500 to 3,000 Sons of Iraq are deployed in and around Samarra, says Abu Mohammed, the nom de guerre of a former colonel in Saddam Hussein's Army who is now a leader of the group. Just a few months ago, Al Qaeda operatives drove openly around the city in pickup trucks with machine guns mounted in the back. Now, visitors can walk about without helmets and protective gear, a testament to the dismantling of what McGee calls "the foundation of fear."

The challenge for the ancient city is to unite Sunnis and Shiites in the common cause of rebuilding. Many Shiites remain angry about the attacks on Al-Askari, one of four key Islamic shrines in Iraq. The question is what will be built on the new foundation. With the pall of violence receding, other tensions are coming to the fore. Samarra's courthouse is full of people on an assortment of quests. A man seeks a license for his fourth marriage. An elderly couple plead for compensation for the damage done to their home, by a mortar fired by American forces, they insist. "Everything. Everything's been destroyed," the man wails. A middle-aged woman also seeks compensation, but for the death of her husband and kidnapping of her son. The door to the main courtroom swings open to reveal half a dozen young men, bound and blindfolded. Mayor Mahood says he does not expect a third attack on the city's most famous mosque, but "that doesn't mean people won't attack it." The newly captured insurgents are reminders that there are still people out there who may be willing to try. Abu Mohammed says his Sons of Iraq are ready to repel the terrorists all over again. He wants at least some of his men to be absorbed into the ISF to better press the fight. But Prime Minister Maliki recently expressed his desire to disband and disarm the Sons of Iraq altogether; he doesn't relish the prospect of 100,000 armed Sunnis roaming across the country. If he follows through with that threat, Samarra, and Iraq, may find themselves in the middle of a whole new round of violence.