Correction to This Article
A photo caption with this article about impressions of the Iraq war in Samarra misstated the rank of a U.S. soldier pictured on duty in the Iraqi city. Kristopher Shea Byrd is a private first class, not a specialist.

Ernesto Londono -- Iraqi city Samarra reflects successes, shortfalls in Iraq

By Ernesto Londoño
Sunday, November 15, 2009

Samarra, Iraq -- The Shiite pilgrims arrive in crowded buses and are dropped off just outside the shrine's gate. They walk down a narrow path patrolled by security guards and lined with tall cement walls to pray at the al-Askari mosque, the resting place of two of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam.

The mosque, which once had a golden dome that sparkled in this city of gray, looks like a construction site, with piles of debris and scaffolding -- remnants of the February 2006 bombing that unleashed a brutal civil war between Sunnis and Shiites.

The thousands of visitors who come each week, mostly Iranians and Iraqis from southern provinces, don't venture from the tear-shaped exclusion zone. Just outside, stores and hotels that once thrived on tourism make up a battle-scarred ghost town. City leaders, merchants and residents have grown deeply resentful at being cut off from the economic heart of the city. "We feel like we're living in a big prison," said merchant Ghazan Hamid, whose shop lies just beyond the wall protecting the mosque.

Samarra, where the U.S. military closed a key base this fall, in many ways embodies the Iraq that American forces are leaving behind as the troop drawdown begins in earnest. The fighting here, as in much of the country, has ebbed. Iraqi troops are indisputably in charge. Sectarian and ethnic divisions remain deep, but political feuds and fights for power are, by and large, not being waged on the street.

As the American military footprint thins out in places such as Samarra, many U.S. soldiers are returning home making a strong case that they are leaving behind a country with a fighting chance. Just how good Iraq's odds are remains an open question -- one that haunts departing U.S. troops and the Iraqis who grew to depend heavily on them. If a somewhat peaceful, albeit deeply divided, country is the best conceivable outcome after more than six years of war, thousands of Americans dead and billions of dollars spent, was it worth it? Nowhere does that question resonate more loudly than in predominantly Sunni cities such as Samarra. Depending on whom you ask, this phase is the preface of peace -- or a prelude to the fight.

"If it doesn't somehow reach an equilibrium, those who are have-nots could find themselves with no alternative except for violence," said Lt. Col. Samuel Whitehurst, an infantry battalion commander whose unit departed Samarra a month ago. "Some of those we have empowered over time, they understand we're leaving. They're looking for other ways. I do have concerns that there are those out there that don't have that vision."

The Samarra that Whitehurst, 43, and his men left is imperfect and edgy, a place awash in anxiety and conspiracy theories. But it is a remarkable success story compared with what became of it during the war's bloodiest time.

This city, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, was one of the key battlegrounds of the war. As Sunnis were marginalized by the U.S.-led invasion that catapulted the country's Shiite majority to power, a mighty insurgency emerged. What began as a loose coalition of groups motivated to fight U.S. forces became the catalyst for the rise of al-Qaeda in Iraq, an extremist group partly funded and led by non-Iraqi Sunni Arabs.

By 2006, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which sought to create an Islamic state run by dogmatic Sunnis, controlled the eastern part of Samarra. U.S. forces and their poorly equipped and trained Iraqi counterparts were drawn into fierce street battles. The mosque bombing unleashed a wave of sectarian attacks and slayings that left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, hundreds of thousands displaced and once-diverse cities balkanized.

Whitehurst's unit, the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, was first deployed to Iraq in the summer of 2006. Rising violence, along with a spike in American combat deaths, had led many to believe the war was lost. U.S. commanders found themselves on the offensive -- not just on battlefields, but also on Capitol Hill, where renewing the lease on the Iraq war seemed like a long shot. In Iraq, U.S. soldiers were widely despised, and they seemed unable to prevent the country from slipping into anarchy.

"We would get a lot of bad looks, rocks thrown," said Staff Sgt. Alex Evans, 26, of Evansville, Ind. "There was definitely hostility in the air."

Instead of retreating, the Bush administration doubled up, sending tens of thousands of additional troops, injecting them deeper into battle and asking them to make the safety of Iraqis their top priority.

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