Samarra Is an Iraqi City Divided by Walls, by Sect, by Bitterness

In the city of Samarra, the former epicenter of the Sunni insurgency, a brittle peace rules.
By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 13, 2009

SAMARRA, Iraq -- Fifteen feet tall, half a mile long, the walls wind like a concrete ribbon through the heart of this scarred holy city, the cradle of Iraq's sectarian war. Shiite pilgrims flow alongside them toward the shattered al-Askari mosque, a symbol of a resuscitating Iraq. Shiite national security forces -- and not a single local Sunni policeman -- patrol the area.

On the other side of the walls, shops lie shuttered; alleys are blanketed by silence. Padlocked red doors, built into the partition, prevent Shiite visitors from mixing with the city's mostly Sunni citizens. Here, Mohammed al-Saeed, a Sunni shopkeeper, fumes.

"This wall is a sectarian wall," he said. "They don't trust us."

The destruction of the venerated mosque in this central Iraqi city in 2006 has come to be seen as the spark for the terrible sectarian violence that gripped Iraq. Now, the Iraqi government holds up Samarra as evidence that peace is possible, even in the country's most contentious areas. But the quiet here is a brittle one, where Shiites exercise dominance and alienated Sunnis wallow in resentment.

"These walls give an idea like death is waiting for us," declared Mohammed Hussen, a local Sunni council leader. "Their ambition is to make Samarra into a Shiite city."

As Iraq marks the sixth anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein this month, attacks on Shiite areas in Baghdad have highlighted the enduring tensions between the nation's two dominant sects. In cities such as Samarra, fresh struggles are underway to control areas and consolidate power and resources ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. troops, scheduled for this summer. These contests pit local forces against the central government -- a reminder of how Iraq remains a patchwork of tribes more loyal to sect, ethnicity and region than a national identity at a time when Iraq, tired of war, needs unity the most.

"The people really can't stand us," said Osama Hussein Ali, 20, a Shiite national policeman from Baghdad who works near the shrine. "Whatever we do for the city, they reject it. It seems they want to go back to the previous situation."

"They hate checkpoints. They hate order."

American military commanders say Iraq's security forces have made progress in combating sectarianism within their ranks. But they are still concerned that many policemen and soldiers remain riven by sect and ethnicity, raising the possibility of infighting and instability after U.S. combat troops leave.

"They are not where any of us want them to be," said Maj. Gen David G. Perkins, the U.S. military's top spokesman in Iraq.

Uneasy Coexistence

Three years ago, a series of bombs, placed in various corners of the shrine, shattered the gold dome of the 10th-century Askari mosque, which houses the remains of two prominent Shiite imams. The U.S. military and the Iraqi government virtually shut down the city as cycles of brutality between Sunnis and Shiites pushed the nation toward the brink of civil war. Outsiders, the vast majority of them Shiites, were brought in to rebuild the shrine.

Today, the city of oatmeal-colored minarets that straddles the Tigris River feels like a military base, with streets tangled by blast walls and checkpoints.

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