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Iraqi Shi’ite mosque rises again

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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.

In early February, with Iraqi flags flying, 500 Sons of Iraq volunteers marched into the city from the U.S. base, went into battle and later set up checkpoints they still man today.

U.S. officers credit the Sons of Iraq with playing a key role in defeating the enemy.

Attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces by al Qaeda numbered about 80 in January. Last month, there were no more than five.

"It's not just the security" the Sons of Iraq help provide, Col. McGee said. "It's the inroads and insight into the population you can only get from people who live here and know all the layers of the story."

Jaish Islami, which means Islamic Army in Arabic, was started in 2003 by former soldiers of Saddam Hussein's army and by former officials of his Ba'ath Party.

Although they shared with al Qaeda the goal of driving out the Americans, they turned their guns on the militant group in 2006 in Salahaddin province because of the organization's foreign leadership and fighters and disregard for Iraqi casualties.

In Samarra, they succeeded in pushing out al Qaeda, but were later defeated. The Jaish Islami members either fled the city or disbanded.

Jaish Islami leaders and tribal sheiks say they are now following a political path to influence.

The insurgency, they said, got them nowhere and they have seen U.S. forces work to rebuild their homeland.

"We thank the coalition forces for all their help," said Sheik Khalid Flayeh al-Bazzi. "If not for the Americans, we couldn't see what we have now."

In the Khadasiyah section of Samarra, where al Qaeda in Iraq had headquarters, stores are open again, with merchants hawking everything from snacks to wedding dresses.

Elsewhere in Samarra, roads are being repaired and infrastructure rebuilt. The Iraqi government supplies the funding, but U.S. troops hire local contractors and ensure funds are spent properly and projects are completed.

A problem area, however, is around the al-Askari mosque. Without a heavy influx of pilgrims, which won't happen until the rebuilding is completed, stores nearby are struggling.

"It will take more than two years" to rebuild," said Samarra Mayor Mahmoud Khalif Ahmed al-Bazzi."You know it's very important to us. The tourist people would come to visit it, stay at hotels, go to the shops, use the taxis. Before, especially during holy days, 100,000 people came. Now it's only a few thousand."

The first Shi'ite pilgrims returned to the city this summer and were greeted by an official welcoming committee. They couldn't worship at the mosque itself, but were able to view reconstruction efforts and pray at another mosque in the al-Askari complex.

Work on the shrine is partially obscured by 12-foot concrete barriers that U.S. troops erected to protect against further attacks. Iraqi national police guard the complex's entrances and secure the dingy, sparsely peopled marketplace around it.

"The mosque is simply the economic lifeblood of the place," Capt. Juan Garcia said. "Samarra is a mosque with a city, not a city with a mosque."

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