After Mosque Bombing, Samarra Sunnis Remain Alienated
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When Sunni insurgents blew up the Golden Mosque in Samarra two years ago, it led to a stunning turn in the war. The destruction of one of the Shiites' holiest shrines set off viscous sectarian violence that spread throughout Iraq. Since then, the city of Samarra has been cut off from the rest of the country. The U.S. military and the Iraqi government closed all access in and out of the city and shut down its markets. Half of the population of Samarra fled, leaving a crumbling ghost town.
Now, the Shiite mosque is being rebuilt, but Samarra's mostly Sunni residents say they're being neglected.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm standing inside the compound of the al-Askari Mosque, and just in front of me is the dome which two years ago was blown up causing such sectarian bloodshed.
The work is just getting started here. They are sorting through the rubble. They are looking to see what can be salvaged and what can't.
(Soundbite of shoveling)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bangladeshi workers in jumpsuits move the debris into huge piles in the marble courtyard. Turkish contractors have been given the job of putting the shrine back together. The U.S. military is not allowed inside the mosque compound, an Iraqi army is in control of the security here.
Katrin Phiban(ph), who's in charge of the site, says the rebuilding will send a signal to the world that Iraq is whole again.
Mr. KATRIN PHIBAN: (Through translator) They tried with the destruction of the shrine to separate our community, to destroy it. But the Iraqis never allowed it, because we are woven together like the branches of a tree.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But his is a minority opinion here. Daha Abdul Rahman(ph) is a shopkeeper. Like many here, he believes the Shiite-led government in Baghdad doesn't care about the Sunni population of Samarra.
Mr. DAHA ABDUL RAHMAN (Shopkeeper, Samarra): (Through translator) They just care about the mosque. They don't care about the people. The government thinks that only the shrine exits in Samarra. Because of that shrine, they closed the city off. People lost their jobs. Many things shut down because of that shrine.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Samarra is a city which is almost completely Sunni Arab. For the five years since the invasion, it has been an insurgent bastion. The U.S. military launched an operation in 2004, but then lost control again. In 2005, the U.S. military built and earthen wall, or berm, around Samarra and restricted access in and out. still, the insurgency thrived. In 2007, there was a second attack on the al-Askari Mosque, that toppled it minarets. The U.S. military and the Iraqi government decided to lock Samarra down.
Colonel MICHAEL MCBRIDE (Commander, 1st Brigade Combat Team 101st Airborne Division): Samarra was a prison.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Colonel Michael McBride is the commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team 101st Airborne Division, now in charge of Samarra.
Col. McBRIDE: We didn't help the situation. We're part of the problem here, the coalition is. We shut the city down. You have the two minarets go down, and then in reaction to that, you say, okay, we're going to close everything. We're going to curfew the city. We're going to punish the entirety of the population.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Over the past five months since the 101st took over from the 82nd Airborne, that has slowly been changing. They've opened up some of the key roads and begun to stand up a local Sunni paramilitary force to fight al-Qaida. Security has improved.
Col. McBRIDE: Unless you have a population's support, that city will remain contentious. It will never come online and support the government because it's going to be disaffected. So we said we're going to take a chance here. We have to take a chance here that we open up the city.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But in many ways, Samarra still exists in a vacuum. The hands of the central government doesn't reach it. It's been forgotten by the provincial leaders as well. The local government works out of a small green zone on the edge of the city, huddled next to the U.S. military base.
Three weeks ago, the mayor was arrested for corruption. There are no services to speak of, and the security forces are riven with sectarian mistrust. The U.S. military is the only real power in town.
Col. McBRIDE: No, no, no, no. You guys come here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Colonel McBride is touring a neighborhood in Samarra. Ten days ago, the largely Shiite National Police tore through here after one of their men was killed. They conducted mass arrests. They beat people up. They shot up homes and caused massive property damage. The U.S. military had to intervene and ended up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation.
Yasser, a resident of the district who declines to give his last name, was arrested by the police.
YASSER: (Through translator) People feel now that there is a vendetta. It should be an eye for an eye after this. The police didn't respect us. We cannot allow anyone to hurt us. The only solution that remains is to retaliate.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: U.S. military patrols in this area used to come under regular fire. Now the Americans are seen as protectors. But the people here hate their own police force, which the U.S. military acknowledges is nowhere near competent.
Everyone wants the Americans to solve even their smallest problems. One man harangues Colonel McBride.
Unidentified Man #1: (Through translator) Everyone is sitting around doing nothing here. There are no schools open. We don't want to remember Saddam's days as the good old days. You guys claim there is democracy and development. Where is it? We need these things. All we have is trash in the street, destroyed houses, orphans and widows everywhere.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The goal, according to the U.S. administration, is to have Iraq stand on its own two feet. After five hard years, cities like Samarra are still being wholly carried.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is sudden chaos in the mini green zone in Samarra where the Iraqi security forces are headquartered. The second in command of the Iraqi forces here has been assassinated.
Unidentified Woman: Just moments ago, General Abdul-Jabbar was killed in a suicide vest bombing attack. A man in a wheelchair came up to him, blew himself up, killing him and himself. There are bits of flesh littered everywhere. Everyone here is in absolute shock. As one U.S. soldier put it, this is not a good day.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The bomber got through three checkpoints in what is supposed to be one of the most secure areas in the city. General Abdul-Jabbar was a Sunni. The men at the checkpoints were Shiites with the national police. As American commanders arrive on the scene, the general's aide says the bomber was let through on purpose.
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #3: He said, the guards, they deliberately just - they let the, you know, the suicide bomber to come all the way over there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Iraqi forces can not be trusted, he says. The Americans, he says, must guard this area.
Col. McBRIDE: OK. I think this is Iraqis who need to be (unintelligible) Iraqis.
Unidentified Man #4: Iraqi no good. Iraqi no good.
Col. McBRIDE: That is not true. There are very many good Iraqi soldiers and very good Iraqi national police officers.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The guards at the checkpoints are put in detention, pending questioning. The cohesive force the U.S. is hoping to build has again been fractured at its sectarian seams.
Mr. RAHMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at his shop in another part of Samarra, Daha Abdul Rahman is still not convinced that things can improve here. While local tribes are now fighting against al-Qaida, that could change if things don't get better for the people who live here. He says since the shrine was blown up, things have gotten worse and worse. It remains to be seen, he says, if anyone really wants to do anything for the city. He says if only the mosque is going to be rebuilt, then Samarra could be delivered again into the hands of the insurgents.
Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Samarra, Iraq.
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