SAMARRA, Iraq -- In this ancient city along the Tigris River, a new Al-Askari Mosque -- a revered Shi'ite shrine and ground zero in the sectarian battles that roiled Iraq -- is slowly rising from the rubble of war.
Al-Qaeda gunmen who once roamed the city at will to enforce their draconian strictures and terrify the population have been driven out to desert hideouts by U.S. and Iraqi security forces, and the main focus now is transitioning to stability -- and that includes rebuilding Samarra's symbol of hope and progress.
"The mosque is simply the economic lifeblood of the place," says Captain Juan Garcia, who works civil-affairs projects in Samarra for Charlie Company, 327th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. "Samarra is a mosque with a city, not a city with a mosque."
Samarra Mayor Mahmud Khalif Ahmad al-Bazzi puts it in more concrete terms: "You know it's very important to us. The tourist people would come to visit it, stay at hotels, go to the shops, use the taxis. Before, especially during holy days, 100,000 people came. Now it's only a few thousand."
Samarra is located north of Baghdad in Salah Al-Din Governorate, part of the so-called Sunni Triangle. During the rule of Saddam Hussein, the city (population about 100,000) was said to have been marginalized by Hussein in terms of political influence, public services, and economic development in favor of Tikrit, the provincial capital and the area from where he came.
The mosque itself dates back to the ninth century, although its golden dome was built in 1905. The mosque complex holds the tombs of two of the Prophet Muhammad's descendants. Over the decades it has attracted millions of Shi'ite pilgrims who believe their missing ninth-century imam, Mahdi, will return to it and the city during the world's End Times.
Al-Qaeda gunmen, nominally Sunni, blew it up in early 2006, sparking a frenzy of sectarian-based tit-for-tat violence across the country that they exploited to expand and gain footholds in Sunni communities.
Protection offered Sunnis in Samarra by Al-Qaeda amid the sectarian fighting elsewhere turned to terror, and in Samarra that meant quashing nationalist rivals and instituting their draconian style of rule.
Former Sunni insurgents turned against Al-Qaeda has been critical to the improving situation.
"When we came here it was the closest thing to anarchy I'd every seen," Captain Garcia says. "There was no government, there were no police in town. People were struggling to survive."
Fighting to reclaim the city was intense. Company commander Captain Josh Kurtzman estimates there were some 300 Al-Qaeda gunmen in the city at the end of last year. Every patrol into it -- and there were at least 12 a day -- from a nearby combat outpost involved constant gunfights and mine explosions.
"When we got here the place was terrible," Kurtzman says. "The first time we came in we had a 45-minute firefight and hit an IED [improvised explosive device] on the way out."
Enlisting Sons Of Iraq
A berm was built around the city to block Al-Qaeda movements into and out of Samarra and concrete barriers were erected around neighborhoods. Groups of local Sunni tribesman, the so-called Sons of Iraq (SOI), were soon formed and joined the fray.
Kurtzman said the SOI were invaluable in unearthing Al-Qaeda weapons caches and in ferreting out their safe houses in the city.
Many of the SOI were former insurgent fighters of the nationalist Jaish Islami, also called Jaish Islamiyah (Army of Islam), organization that, with local tribesmen, had tried to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq forces in Samarra in 2006 but were defeated.
The Army of Islam was formed by former soldiers of Saddam Hussein's army and former officials of his Ba'ath Party. They once fought U.S. forces but their leaders in Samarra and tribal sheikhs that support them say they are now following a political path to achieve influence in Iraq and that they see cooperation with U.S. forces as a better means of driving out al-Qaeda and rebuilding their homeland.
"We thank the coalition forces for all their help," Sheikh Khalid Flayih al-Bazzi says. "If not for the Americans, we couldn't see what we have now."
"Their leaders here came to us and a reconciliation was made," Kurtzman says. In early February, with Iraqi flags flying, 500 volunteers marched into the city and were soon joined by other volunteers.
Al-Qaeda attacks against Sons of Iraq, Iraqi security forces, and U.S. troops in Samarra now number about three to five a month. In January the number was more than 80.Long Path Of Reconstruction
The pushing of Al-Qaeda out of the city has meant that in the Al-Khadasiyah section of Samarra, where Al-Qaeda in Iraq were headquartered, stores have opened again and hawk everything from snacks to refrigerators to wedding dresses. The streets are potholed but passable, and U.S. troops are overseeing projects to install solar street lighting and to repair curbing.
Elsewhere in Samarra, roads are slowly being fixed and infrastructure rebuilt. The Iraqi government has so far allocated more than $2.6 million for infrastructure projects around the city, including the repair of water-treatment and sewage plants, road repair, and the building of a cement factory, which will help create jobs. U.S. forces pinpoint and administer the projects.
Can the golden days return?
Around the rising Al-Askari Mosque, also known as the Mosque of the Golden Dome, however, shops will have little business until the holy site is more fully restored. In July, several thousand Shi'ite pilgrims came in special buses to see restoration work and worship at another mosque within the Al-Askari complex. The same thing happened last month, but the numbers are pitiful compared to before.
"It will take more than two years" to rebuild, says the mayor.
Every day since February, 150 laborers enter the mosque's guarded precincts and work from scaffolding to build its main structure. Every day that structure of rough concrete rises higher above the skyline.
The work is partially obscured by 4-meter-high concrete barriers that U.S. troops put in place outside the religious complex to protect against further attacks by Al-Qaeda infiltrators. Iraqi National Police guard its entrances and secure the dingy, sparsely peopled marketplace around it.
"People see the destroyed buildings, the rubble every day and sometimes grumble that the [Shi'ite-dominated] Iraqi government only care about the mosque," Garcia says. "But I think they also now realize how much effort it took to get to this point and that it will take a few more years" before everything is cleaned up.
The regiment leaves Samarra for the United States this month following a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq. Their replacements will carry on the U.S. security-to-stability transition operations track, coordinate security with local forces, and help improve relations and cooperation between Samarra's Sunni Sons of Iraq, Shi'ite National Police, and Kurdish Iraqi Army soldiers outside the city.
"I like to hope we've put the insurgency to a point where the Iraqis can handle it, and I think they can deal with the flare ups that are coming," says Lieutenant Colonel P.J. McGee, who commands the regiment.