- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2008

SAMARRA, Iraq

This dusty Sunni Muslim community of cinder-block buildings sprawled along the Tigris River, once ground zero for a sectarian war, is making a comeback that has significance for Iraq as a whole.

In February 2006, al Qaeda blew up Samarra’s al-Askari mosque, one of Shi’ite Islam´s holiest sites, and sparked a nationwide wave of tit-for-tat sectarian killings.

Today, that ninth-century structure - also known as the Mosque of the Golden Dome - is being rebuilt and small groups of Shi’ite pilgrims are beginning to reappear.

Al Qaeda has been driven from the city, and local Sunni security groups and Shi’ite national police are cooperating, albeit grudgingly.

“There is a degree of friction in the people´s perception of the national police, but it´s better than a year ago,” said Lt. Col. J.P. McGee, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment. “In fact, there is a degree of cooperation unimaginable a year ago.”

Officers of the 327th said the Sunni Sons of Iraq, who initially refused to man checkpoints with the Shi’ite national police imported from Baghdad, now do so. Sons of Iraq leaders and Sunni tribal sheiks, who once refused to enter a room where national police officers were present, now meet with them regularly.

The Sunnis still grouse about what they perceive as slights and disrespect from the national police. But the level of cooperation between the two, facilitated by the Americans, has been effective enough that U.S. troops are preparing to hand off control to the Iraqi government.

Targeted raids against al Qaeda infiltrators and sleeper cells inside and outside the city still occur, U.S. soldiers said, but with Iraqi forces in the lead.

“We would like to hope we’ve put the insurgency to a point where the Iraqis can handle it, and I think they can deal with the flare-ups that are coming,” Col. McGee said.

Samarra, in Salahaddin province, is part of the so-called Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad. When the 327th rolled into Samarra late last year, about 300 al Qaeda fighters roamed the city at will.

Every U.S. foray into its neighborhoods from a nearby operating base turned into multiple gunbattles and encounters with improvised explosive devices.

To keep additional al Qaeda gunmen from entering Samarra, troops constructed a berm around the city.

Shortly afterward, newly recruited Sons of Iraq forces and tribal volunteers joined the fray. The Sons of Iraq were former insurgent fighters of the nationalist group Jaish Islami, which in 2006 had fought al Qaeda’s presence in the city but lost.

“[Jaish Islami] leaders here came to us and a reconciliation was made,” Capt. Josh Kurtzman, commander of Cougar (Charlie) Company, said at Combat Operating Base Olson.

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