Five years ago, Iraqi insurgents in Samarra, north of Baghdad, detonated four bombs in a shrine that is one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.
The destruction of the Askariya shrine brought the most vicious sectarian warfare that Iraq has seen. Now the shrine is being rebuilt, but the sectarian tensions that were triggered by its destruction have not disappeared.
The importance of the Askariya shrine to Shiites runs deep. Two of the 12 imams, the divine souls and descendants of the Prophet Muhammad whose story resides at the heart of Shiite Islam, are buried there. It's also where the 12th imam, the Hidden Imam, is believed to have disappeared, awaiting the day to return to Earth.
The shrine's shining gold dome functioned as a beacon, bringing the devout from all over the world.
Ghassan Adnan, who works as an interpreter for NPR, visited the shrine many times before the current war, when it was very different, he says.
"During the former regime time, ... when we used to come here, people would be everywhere around this place — the market, shop owners, restaurants, hotels, taxis," he says. "You get inside here, you find different people, pilgrims from all over the world, from the Shia side, from Iraq, from Iran, from India, Pakistan, other nationalities."
It's nearly empty now. A few pilgrims inside the shrine pray quietly — some moved to tears by the tragedy of the original Shiite imams, and by grief and sorrow from the current conflict.
Outside, workmen sort bricks to rebuild a crumpled wall. The dome and the two minarets have been rebuilt, but there is still much restoration work to be done to bring the shrine back to its original glory, says Haider Yacoubi, the shrine's administrative manager.
"Right now, with the reconstruction going on, they are putting the gold up there. But we have covered the dome right now, and we are trying to surprise people, surprise visitors," he says through an interpreter. "So whenever we are done, we are going to take the cover [off] and suddenly people or pilgrims will see gold there so they'll be totally happy."
Those in control of the project — it goes all the way up to the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — have ambitions that go beyond the original shrine. They have decided to expand it with a new wing that can accommodate another 5,000 worshippers. They are also tearing down all the old buildings and houses immediately surrounding the shrine.
The whole neighborhood will be redeveloped, Yacoubi says.
"This city is considered as totally destroyed because of the events here. So once you expand the size of the shrine and once you pay the compensation to people, it's going to be for the benefit of the pilgrims," he says through an interpreter. "More restaurants will be set up outside, more hotels will be set up outside and the pilgrims would have the chance to sleep here in the city, which means they will pay more money and regular people outside will get the benefit of it."
It is over this plan, which is expected to generate millions of dollars, that new sectarian tensions have surfaced. The development project remains firmly in the hands of the Shiite community — not in the hands of the city or provincial government, which are dominated by the Sunnis who make up the majority of Samarra's population. They resent being cut out of what will almost certainly be a very rich project.
"We talk as the provincial council here. We have no single committee taking part in the reconstruction process taking place in the Askari shrine," Omar Muhammad Hassan, the head of the municipal council of Samarra, says through an interpreter. "No single member of the provincial council is involved or [is] part of the ordering and supervision in the reconstruction process in the holy shrine."
A Fight For Riches
These tensions have boiled over into the streets. Iraq has been hit by a wave of demonstrations in recent weeks, with many complaining about the corruption and ineptitude of the government. A few weeks ago, protesters surrounded the shrine and tried to get inside. They were pushed back by security troops, and Thamer Turki, one of the guards at the shrine, says the situation turned ugly.
"I was standing in the middle of them and I was hit by a rock," he says through an interpreter. "And the demonstrators themselves, they were motivated by the Iraqi Islamic Party, and they were paid, each demonstrator, $50 to do the demonstration."
The Iraqi Islamic Party now represents many of the same Sunni groups that formed the insurgency in 2003 and fought the U.S. and the Shiite government.
Its affiliates almost certainly planted the bombs that brought the shrine down. Now they are fighting for some of the riches expected to come from its reconstruction. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.