SAMARRA â€” The heavy wooden doors of the Golden Mosque open on to an ethereal hall clad in thousands of intricately arranged blue and silver tiles decorated with flowing Arabic script.
But refuse drifts through the interior archway that once led to a grand mausoleum, the ugly remains of a bomb that destroyed the mosque’s enormous golden dome in February 2006 and triggered Iraq’s devastating sectarian war.
No one was hurt, but the attack on one of Shiite Islam’s holiest sites ignited massacres that have left thousands dead and the country all but ungovernable.
The mosque houses the remains of the 10th and 11th Imams â€” Ali Al Hadi and Hassan Al Askari â€” buried in the house where they died in the ninth century and around which the shrine was built.
Both are venerated by Shiites as direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammad and inheritors of his leadership mantle.
Most Shiites believe that a hidden 12th imam, who di0sappeared at a young age around the same time, will one day reveal himself in Samarra as the champion of the righteous in a battle at the end of world.
Samarra, an overwhelmingly Sunni city north of Baghdad, has seen little if any sectarian fighting. Sunnis have welcomed Shiite pilgrims here for centuries, the economy thriving on religious tourism.
“The Shiites used to always come to visit here. They would go to our shrines and we would go to theirs,” says Abu Mahmoud, who lives near the mosque. “We were all one. We are all the children of Adam.” Abbas Hamoud, a shopkeeper near the shrine, said that “after the invasion there were more visitors than ever before. Then after the explosion there were no more.” The mosque was altered over the centuries, with the last remodelling done in 1868.
The massive golden dome, about 20 metres high and with a diameter of 68 metres, was added in 1905. It was covered in 72,000 gold pieces and surrounded by walls of light blue tiles.
The government has vowed to rebuild the dome but officials warn that they will first need to bring security to a town in the grip of insurgents, and the wounds left by the explosion are still festering.
The mosque has been closed since the attack, and the city’s skyline is still disfigured. Between the shrine’s remaining golden minaret and the blue onion dome of an adjacent mosque there is only a crude mound of rubble.
US and Iraqi officials pinned the bombing on a local man named Haitham Al Badri whom they say is a member of Al Qaeda, but many in Samarra blame outsiders.
“It was a professional job, so I think it had to be the Americans or the Iranians,” said Abu Abdullah, 39, a former civil servant who lives near the mosque. He also blames the government in Baghdad.
“Why did they not guard the area before the attack? I think they wanted there to be this strife between Sunnis and Shiites.” The widespread paranoia has complicated reconstruction efforts.
Both the government in Baghdad and local tribal sheikhs have asked the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to help repair the mosque.
Earlier this year, a Turkish company was selected to carry out the first phase of the project, which “is related to the urgent preventive works and the preparation of the final restoration project,” said Mohammad Djelid, director of UNESCO’s Iraq office.
But a government official, requesting anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the project, said “at this point there is no trust between us because they think it is too dangerous to work in the city.” “There are a lot of threats against people working on this project. Many people inside and outside the city do not want it to be carried out and because of this I am doing all of this work in secret.” The company doing the rebuilding will provide on-site security, but the Iraqi government is responsible for the city itself and the road from Baghdad.
Just securing the town would require another brigade of national police or Iraqi soldiers, the official said.
But those forces have not materialised, and the 60 police now stationed in Samarra, under relentless attack by insurgents, have repeatedly threatened to return to Baghdad.
Al Qaeda, which holds an intimidating sway over the town, would almost certainly target any reconstruction effort linked to the central government.
“We want to rebuild the mosque and the people here need the work, but the security situation is getting worse and worse,” said Abu Mahmoud.
For now, the only force with anything close to a monopoly of power in Samarra are paratroopers from the US 82nd Airborne, based on the edge of the city.