SAMARRA, Iraq (Reuters) - Sunlight once again glints off the golden dome of one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines, almost fully restored 10 years after suspected al Qaeda militants blew it up in northern Iraq.
But as Shi’ite influence grows in Samarra, shops and homes around al-Askari shrine owned by residents of the mainly Sunni city have been shut, amidst fears of forced displacement and splintering of the area along sectarian lines.
The shrine’s destruction on February 22, 2006 sparked a wave of revenge attacks that killed tens of thousand of people and plunged Iraq into a sectarian civil war. No one was injured in the bombing itself.
In the attack, gunmen in police uniforms burst into the shrine, tied up guards and planted explosives that brought down its 100-year-old dome, one of the Muslim world’s biggest and best known. Another blast in 2007 destroyed two golden minarets.
Communal blood-letting has abated, but the Samarra residents’ concerns reflect those of many in Iraq’s Sunni minority, who fear expulsion from sensitive areas they say the ascendant Shi’ite majority wants to control.
Sunnis point to violence like last month’s attacks in eastern Diyala province as proof they are still not safe more than a decade after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni from north of Samarra.
That has also hindered the return of three million Sunnis displaced by Islamic State, which authorities consider key to Iraq’s stability.
Government officials and Shi’ite leaders reject talk of partition and deny there are any intentions to alter Iraq’s demographic makeup. But the tensions represent another challenge to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a moderate Shi’ite trying to win over Sunnis to push Islamic State out of northern and western areas it seized in 2014.
The multi-million-dollar construction project to restore al-Askari shrine, also called the Golden Mosque, was aimed partly at healing mistrust sown by the attack, but it may have actually deepened suspicions.
Local authorities are trying to incorporate nearby districts into the site, two local officials told Reuters.
Around 2,500 shops and 1,000 homes owned by Sunnis have been closed and shuttered, said Kamil Abbas, a member of the provincial council of Salahuddin where Samarra is located.
“Expanding the shrine will deprive thousands of Samarra residents of the right to use their properties,” Abbas said.
Some residents sold their properties at high prices a year ago, but most left after security forces kept them from accessing their shops and homes or barred public services like rubbish collection, said a city official, who requested anonymity.
“They are making a Shi’ite city and a Sunni city, like Adhamiya and Kadhimiya,” he added, referring to adjacent Baghdad neighborhoods.
Shi’ite officials dismiss those charges and say life in the heavily fortified city on the east bank of the Tigris River is returning to normal.
Ahmed Mahdi, the shrine’s operations manager, said any property acquired near the shrine took place consensually and in exchange for compensation.
“If they refuse, we do not force anyone to sell their property ... but expansion is happening at all Islamic sites, not just Samarra,” he told Reuters, referring to holy cities in southern Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Mahdi said Samarra’s “special security status” close to the front-line where forces are battling Islamic State required precautions but called them “normal” and not unlike security at sites in southern Iraq far from the fighting. He denied that residents were deprived of public services.
A member of Salahuddin Operations Command, overseeing the province’s security, said measures imposed after the 2006 attack were tightened after two suicide bombers detonated explosives near the shrine in mid-2014 amid Islamic State’s advance.
Colonel Abdul Kareem al-Saadi said vigilance was required to combat militants seeking to reignite sectarian unrest.
“Such procedures are meant to achieve a bigger objective which is maintaining peaceful coexistence,” he said.
Millions of Shi’ite pilgrims, many from neighboring Iran, flock annually to Samarra, an ancient city 125 km (80 miles) northwest of Baghdad. Its shrine, which also permits Sunni visitors, houses the tombs of two ninth century Shi’ite imams — religious leaders descended from the Prophet Mohammad.
The site was easily accessible under Saddam even as he violently oppressed Shi’ites and imposed a mostly secular rule.
Shi’ite militiamen armed with automatic weapons and dressed in black uniforms now impose a security cordon extending hundreds of meters around the shrine.
Most gunmen belong to the ‘Peace Brigades’ of powerful Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army was accused of operating death squads targeting Sunnis a decade ago. A charge it denied.
Blast walls and metal gates block movement around the shrine. Storefronts inside the security perimeter are shuttered or abandoned. The only activity is from patrolling guards and pilgrims who are bussed in.
After Islamic State’s advance, militiamen surged to protect the site, sparing Samarra the destruction and mass displacement of other Sunni-populated areas further north and west.
Yet the government’s reliance on Shi’ite militias and volunteers rather than the ineffectual national army as a unifying military force has deepened sectarian mistrust.
The Peace Brigades now conduct high-profile patrols in urban areas around the shrine, run joint police checkpoints along the road from Baghdad and hold an 85-km-long front-line nearby.
The U.S.-led coalition launching air strikes against Islamic State, which split from and overtook al Qaeda in recent years, said the insurgents would not threaten Samarra on the tenth anniversary of the attack.
“We could see (car bombs). They’re capable of launching rocket attacks ... but as far as amassing forces, they don’t have the capability before we would interdict them,” U.S. Army Captain Chance McCraw, an intelligence officer, said last month.
Hussein Sharifi, a former lawmaker from southern Iraq now fighting with the Peace Brigades, said there were attacks and casualties daily at the front-line 30 km west of Samarra.
“We’ve taken into consideration the range of mortars and rockets that might reach us (at the shrine),” he said during a visit. “The enemy cannot reach the city. We have secured it completely.”
Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, editing by Peter Millership