By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Dec. 18, 2008 - The bombs that severely damaged the Golden Mosque in this city on the Tigris River almost destroyed the foundations of the nation, but the Golden Mosque is rising again, just like Iraq. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, toured the city and saw the reconstruction effort today.
Steel beams gracefully soar into the sky where ruined masonry once stood. The mosque is a holy site to Shiia Muslims around the world, and is the focus of pilgrimages for the faithful. The United Nations declared the Golden Mosque -- and the nearby Blue Mosque -- as a world heritage site, which is a site of cultural or natural importance to humanity.
The al-Qaida attack on the holy place Feb. 22, 2006, shook Iraq. "It was akin to terrorists bombing St. Peter's [Basilica] in the Vatican or the Western Wall in Jerusalem," said Michael C. Craft, the Samarra team leader for the provincial reconstruction team in Iraq's Salahuddin province.
The analogy is not exact, because while the Golden Mosque is a Shiia shrine, Samarra is a Sunni Muslim city. The attack threatened to ignite a sectarian civil war inside Iraq, pitting the two largest ethnicities against each other.
All members of the government pulled together to try and keep a lid on the violence, but ethnic killings multiplied, and the country threatened to spin out of control.
Walking through the streets of Samarra in 2006 would not have been a safe option. But American and Iraqi officials had no compunction about the highest-ranking U.S. officer taking a stroll through the city today.
U.S. soldiers of the 25th Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade Combat Team drove the admiral to the middle of the city in a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle. Mullen and Army Maj. Gen. Bob Caslen, commander of Multinational Division North, then strolled through the main shopping street toward the mosque.
The stores were full of goods, and people were in the streets. Shoppers could buy everything from electronic gear to baby clothes. Vendors stood outside their shops, barbers stood by to give haircuts, and workmen scurried about bringing building supplies into the few vacant storefronts left.
When the Iraqis saw the admiral, they felt free to walk right up to him with suggestions, complaints and advice. The mayor of the city met the admiral, and the two men and interpreters climbed three flights of stairs to the roof of a ruined building that overlooks the Golden Mosque construction site.
"The Samarrans see the mosque as an engine of growth for the city," Craft said. "Even with the mosque being rebuilt, there are still between 5,000 and 15,000 pilgrims coming to the city each weekend." That number grows during important anniversaries, he said.
And that's part of the problem, he said. Charter buses bring the faithful in, mostly from Baghdad. The pilgrims get off the buses and walk through concrete Jersey barriers to enter the shrine area. Once they finish the visit, they get back on the buses and leave. "The Jersey barriers effectively cut off the city from the shrine," Craft said.
Samarrans want the barriers taken down so the pilgrims can at least see the shops and hotels along the city's riverside.
The city and surrounding area are recovering from the dark days. Samarra once was the center of the Iraqi pharmaceutical industry. That is returning, and a factory in town employs more than 3,000 people. The company ships pharmaceuticals throughout Iraq and soon will expand production to supply medicines to other nations in the region.
City officials are working with provincial and national leaders to build the infrastructure. "The people are demanding services, and the city officials are responding," Craft said. City officials are involved in building the budget and spending the funds.
The city is moving ahead, but there are other, systemic problems. Under Saddam Hussein, the social infrastructure was stunted, and there still are no Iraqi equivalents to the Rotary Club or the Lions. Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts do not exist here.
"We are working with local citizens to build these institutions," Craft said. "These are organizations that we take for granted in the United States, but they are nonexistent or nascent here. They are necessary for a society of law."
The American footprint in Samarra will change in the future, military officials said, though they did not discuss how. But the workmen still climb about the Golden Mosque even as the calls to prayer go out over the loudspeaker. In 2010, the Golden Mosque will be rebuilt, Inshallah, the mayor, said.