February 22, 2006 was when it all went to hell. At least, that's how many Iraqis Sunnis and Shi'ites alike remember it. That was the day a powerful bomb set by Sunni extremists ripped through the golden dome of the ancient al-Askari Shrine, one of the holiest sites of Shi'ism, located in the predominantly Sunni city of Samarra, 65 miles north of Baghdad. The blast triggered a round of sectarian bombings, massacres and kidnappings so horrifying that for the next year and a half, many Iraqis would wonder if life would ever return to normal and had many in Washington warning of an intractable slide into civil war.
Between 2004 and 2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq had "controlled the city", says General Ra'ad Jassim Mohammed, one of the lead Iraqi National Police commanders in Samarra. Today, the city is witnessing a slow but shaky revival. Two months ago, the central market re-opened; a university the city's first is now under construction; and even the rubble of the ancient shrine, which was bombed again in 2007, is being prepared for a momentous rehabilitation. A city that had come to symbolize Iraq's sectarian schism may yet play a key role in national reconciliation. That's if its leaders heed the lingering warning signs.
U.S. military commanders and Iraqi police chiefs say the tide turned last November, when Baghdad bolstered its security presence in the city and residents began to help push for change. The police walled the city in, leaving only three entrances, to prevent infiltration. The city's 800 policemen, planned to grow to a force of 1,500, have also dealt effectively with sectarian tensions, says deputy police commander General Adnan al-Saadi. "When we first came here, al-Qaeda spread rumors that we were here to occupy the city, and that we are [Shi'ite] and were going to treat [the residents] badly. But then the people started to realize that we were dealing with them in a professional way," he said. Attacks in Samarra have dropped 95% over the past year, according to the U.S. military.
But the national police couldn't have done the job alone. As in other Sunni areas of Iraq, the establishment last March of a local anti-Qaeda "Awakening" group was a major factor in Samarra's turnaround. According to the U.S. military, there are currently more than 2,000 Awakening members operating in Samarra far more than there are policemen. "We work together in checkpoints and as fighters," says Mohammed. "There is no operation that isn't a joint operation." Their cooperation is key in an atmosphere where many Sunni residents still openly accuse the police force of being dominated by outsider Shi'ites. "The most significant aspect of the [Awakening] movement in Samarra is the fact that [its members] come from all of the major tribes in the city," says Major Margaret Kageleiry, a U.S. military spokesperson in northern Iraq.
Towering blast walls now cordon off the field of rubble and debris outside the ruined al-Askari shrine. Before the bombing, it drew anywhere from 250 to 500 pilgrims a week; today there are none. But it is being slowly and carefully rebuilt under the direction of UNESCO, with the backing of the Iraqi government and the European Commission. Mourad Zmit, the Samarra project manager for UNESCO, says it may take four years, and up to $300 million to restore the ancient structure, depending on the results of the damage assessment over the next several months. But the fact that reconstruction is now possible offers hope. "All Iraqis are focusing on the shrine . . . It was a symbol [and] the shrine is part of the reconciliation process," he says.
To help promote reconciliation on a national scale, Samarra's security forces last month invited some 12,000 Shi'ites from Najaf and elsewhere to visit the shrine site. "After two months, it will be Ramadan, and we will invite many more," said Mohammed. "We are trying to re-build the relationship between both sides."
But the progress in Samarra, like much of Iraq, is precarious. Though insurgent attacks have dropped dramatically, "the biggest concern now is unemployment, because it directly affects the security situation," said General Mohammed. And reconstructing the shrine is central to the prospects of a city whose economy has for years depended largely on religious tourism. "Ninety percent of the people lost their jobs [as a result of the bombing]," says Mohammed. And unemployment creates fertile ground for insurgent recruitment. "When someone finds himself without work for three years, he'll do anything for money even setting off explosions or killing people," Mohammed says. And despite the security gains, work has been slow in coming back, and he estimates the majority of residents are still unemployed.
Samarra's residents are quick to confirm that assessment, directly confronting the security forces with their frustration. On the market street near the shrine, civilians blame the Shi'ite-dominated government in Baghdad, and the police force it has sent to the city, for failing to provide jobs. "Unemployment is high. We apply for jobs with the police and they reject us," yelled one shopkeeper in a crowd of angry civilians many of whom echoed his grievance. "How could you secure the town without the people of the town?" called another. "Each [commander] has his own people who he has already picked . . . They bring their own people from Najaf, Balad, and Karbala." Others blamed the security forces for involvement in a "conspiracy" to deny the people the electricity and water needed to run their shops. "Listen to me, if you're angry about power, just know there are some other areas where people are buying their water," said Mohammed, trying to calm the crowd. "I am one of those people. I have to buy water!" yelled a bystander.
Kageleiry says Samarra is now "better than it has ever been" and "the biggest obstacles standing in the way are lack of electricity and water." But as residents reveal, it's a sizable obstacle. And given its centrality to both sectarian conflict and the prospects for reconciliation in Iraq, Samarra has a lot riding on its success. "What they should do is take away all these concrete barriers and let all the [Shi'ite] pilgrims come and go. To hell with sectarianism. They are welcome," said one shopkeeper a reassuring voice in a cloud of tension on the street. The others, who had been yelling, nodded in agreement and for a moment, the mood quieted. But with few customers visiting his clothing store, which is barely a stone's throw from the fenced-off shrine, the man's desperation was telling. "Why is there crime here in Samarra? Because people have no money," he said. "The government promised us a lot. But when I go home without money, I go mad."