SAMARRA, Iraq: Five years ago, a blast tore through Iraq’s golden-domed Shiite Askari shrine in the mainly Sunni city of Samarra, helping ignite two years of sectarian strife that drove Iraq to the brink of civil war.
Now the shrine is being rebuilt and Shiite authorities are buying up nearby estates from Sunni residents to expand the mosque, risking reopening old sectarian wounds just as the last U.S. troops ready to withdraw by December.
Samarra reflects the mistrust of Iraq’s Shiite-led government among minority Sunnis. Many felt marginalized after the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein allowing the majority Shiites to rise to political supremacy.
Sunnis living in Samarra accuse Shiite authorities of trying to tilt the sectarian demographic balance by expanding the mosque through buying up surrounding houses and shops and tearing them down.
Others complain of the tight security measures and concrete walls built around the shrine separating them from the rest of the city and the normal life they once had.
“They want to change the demographic nature of the city for sure, and on a sectarian basis,” said Abdul-Rahman al-Samarraie, a store owner from the city.
“Some people say Saudi Arabia is buying, and Iran is buying … The whole city has been sold in one way or another. Iraq became an easy morsel for neighboring countries.”
Iraqis accuse neighboring countries of meddling in their affairs and talk of a sectarian power struggle over their country between ShiiteIran and Sunni-led Saudi Arabia.
Officials at the Shiite Endowment, the government agency that manages Shiite religious sites, dismiss the charge that they are expanding the shrine at the expense of the local community.
Hundreds of demonstrators took to Samarra’s streets in recent months demanding the shrine’s supervision pass to the local provincial government as it was before the 2006 bombing.
“People are worried the city is being converted into a Shiite area, because we see attempts at owning property, despite the will of Samarra’s people and the municipality,” said Omar Hassan, head of Samarra municipal council.
“The bombing of the shrine caused chaos across Iraq. We don’t want this to happen again.”
Fears of renewed sectarian tensions are rising as U.S. troops prepare to pull out of Iraq by the end of the year. While keeping U.S. troops on Iraqi soil is a sensitive issue, many Iraqis in private fear sectarian tensions may boil over again without the buffer of a U.S. troop presence.
Insurgents blew up the Askari shrine, one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims, in February 2006 and a year later another explosion destroyed its two minarets. The Iraqi government blamed Al-Qaeda for the 2006 attack.
The bombing unleashed a wave of killings and unraveled the country’s religious tapestry, setting off migration as towns and villages splintered along sectarian lines and mixed communities became battlegrounds.
Violence has eased dramatically since then, but Sunni Islamists and Shiite militias still carry out almost daily bombings, assassinations and attacks.
Samarra’s shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque, is one of the four major Shiite shrines in Iraq and is the burial place of two of the 12 most revered Shiite imams.
Officials in Samarra say the Shiite Endowment is violating the limit granted it by the central government in Baghdad to expand the mosque’s territory by 80 meters. They say the area around the shrine is now 200 meters.
The Shiite authorities have been buying land and properties around the shrine from residents for $2,000 per square meter.
Shiite Endowment head, Saleh al-Haidari, said critics of the expansion were people who didn’t get offers for their property.
The new golden dome, the mosque’s most distinctive feature, is nearly complete but work inside is going on. Still, thousands of Shiite worshippers flock to the city.
But the Golden Mosque is now hidden behind blast walls and barbed wire. Dozens of checkpoints and security guards encircle the shrine.
Meanwhile, business owners are affected by the upheaval and lament the lack of financial benefit now the area around the shrine is sealed off.