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The al-Askari mosque is one of the holiest sites in Islam, especially to the Shi'a. It is located in the modern city of Samarra in northern Iraq, which was briefly the capital of the Islamic caliphate when Iraq was the centre of the burgeoning Arab empire. The mosque has been a focal point of Shi'a aspirations for over a millennium, containing as it does the bodies of holy figures venerated by Twelvers, the largest branch of Shi'a Islam, who make up some 65% of the Iraqi population. It is also the point where the twelfth imam, the Mahdi, disappeared from earthly existence to await the Apocalypse. The mosque survived the devastation of Samarra that followed the movement of the capital back to Baghdad, the British occupation of Iraq, Saddam Hussein's rule, the American invasion in 2003, and repeated attempts to demolish it by Sunni terrorists at the height of Iraq's post-invasion civil war.

Despite being a Shi'a shrine, the mosque sits in the middle of the Sunni triangle to the north of Baghdad that was Saddam Hussein's base of support and remains the most dangerous area for coalition forces in Iraq. Samarra is by far a majority Sunni city, and while the Sunnis hold the mosque to be holy they do not venerate it to the extent that the Shi'a do; its position at a nexus of Sunni power has been a touchy issue in relations between the two sects, a fact that became all too clear when Sunni extremists blew it up in 2006, turning it into an Iraqi Ground Zero and finally pushing the country over a brink from which it might never have been pulled back. The twisting fate of the al-Askari mosque over the centuries illustrates the conflict and mistrust between Sunni and Shi'a that will determine the future of Iraq, and of America's commitment to Iraq.

It all began over a thousand years ago.

* * *

Samarra was founded in 836 after the caliph - of the Abbasid dynasty - got into a spot of bother in the capital, Baghdad. Arab rulers were in the habit of using kidnapped slave soldiers from far abroad as their personal bodyguard and fighting force because they reasoned that it was best to allow only slaves presumed to have no interest in local politics access to their intimate person. However, the personal position and privileges awarded to these soldiers often rankled with the empire's subjects, and their behaviour provoked widespread riots in Baghdad against the soldiers. The caliph quickly upped sticks to Samarra, which was transformed into a military camp but then slowly developed as an opulent capital.

The Abbasid caliphs were Sunnis. The difference between Sunni and Shi'a rests primarily on the issue of who was the rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammed after his death. Shi'a hold that the family of Mohammed continued to have special spiritual and political authority over Muslims after the death of Muhammed, whereas Sunnis support the leader who was selected by a meeting of the Arab tribes in modern-day Saudi Arabia. By not passing the leadership of the Islamic community to Mohammed's son-in-law Imam Ali, who Shi'a consider his rightful successor, the Sunni were guilty of an original sin in the eyes of the Shi'a; and the consequences of their actions split the Islamic community for ever. Ali eventually became the fourth caliph but he was the only caliph ever who the Shi'a consider to have been legitimate. The Shi'a supported a series of men called the Twelve Imams who they believed were the rightful rulers of the Islamic community, and this earned them the ire of the actual rulers.

The al-Askari mosque is an unintended consequence of this ire and the persecution that followed. At around the time Samarra was founded, the Abbasid caliphs were concerned about the activities of the Shi'a in Medina and Mecca. This was where Mohammed's descendents lived, and among them were a succession of imams who were claimed by Shi'a to be the rightful rulers of Islam. The caliphs had murdered imam after imam - who were, remember, all blood descendents of the Prophet - but they could not stamp out their followers, and so in 848 they placed the tenth imam under house arrest in Samarra, right at the heart of the caliph's military power. And here too, after the tenth imam was poisoned by the caliph, the eleventh imam also lived under house arrest until he was poisoned in turn. And then, according to Twelver Shi'a belief, a miracle occurred.

Various sayings of the Prophet and passages in the Qur'an accord special significance to the tweflth descendent of Muhammed. It was not even widely known at the time that the eleventh imam had a son, and the Shi'a explain this by saying he was kept secret because of the persecution the community was undergoing. It is reported that as the eleventh imam's funeral was underway and his brother stood up to lead prayers, the five-year old twelfth imam stepped up and said: "Move aside, uncle; only an Imam can lead the funeral prayer of an Imam." And then he is said to have vanished from sight and gone into what is called "Occultation", a period of concealment from the world during which he still reigns as imam but has no earthly presence; Twelver Shi'a believe that he will return, along with Jesus, at the Apocalypse, to spread Islam throughout the entire world.

The belief in the rule of this so-called "Hidden Imam" and his return gave Shi'ism an other-worldly quality that it does not share with Sunni Islam; suspicious of earthly authority and used to being persecuted - much like early Christians - the Shi'a turned decisively away from politics for most of their history, further adding to the bizzareness of the Iranian Revolution. But this development lay slightly in the future. Beginning in 944, as the Abbasid caliphate collapsed, a Shi'a dynasty briefly ruled in Baghdad - and, as well as allowing the observance of Shi'a rituals, the regime opted to build an impressive mosque at the site of the Hidden Imam's occultation in Samarra. This became the al-Askari mosque. Political power would never return to Samarra - indeed, Iraq was about to enter a period of strife and darkness that would last centuries - but, thanks to the forced relocation of the imams, it continued to house these important Shi'a shrines.

* * *

Fast forward to 2003. It's a long time. Samarra became a dusty nowhere, its former glory a distant memory. In the thirteenth century the course of the River Tigris shifted dramatically away from the city and Samarra could have followed other settlements in being swallowed by the desert sands for ever; but the al-Askari mosque stood as a ward against its descent into total obscurity. The city enjoyed a renaissance in the twentieth century and under the Sunni leadership of Saddam Hussein, but the al-Askari mosque could not flower because of the dictator's oppression of the Shi'a majority. The Shi'a were banned from many of the public observances of their faith because Saddam feared the impact of ideas spawned by the Iranian revolution, and the atmosphere was far from hospitable to pilgrimages to the mosque.

Then the Americans arrived. One of the myths of the invasion of Iraq is that it devastated the whole country. This is not the case; much of the devastation came later. In 2003, many Iraqis never even saw an American soldier, and most of those who did experienced the foreign presence as the heavy rumble of a passing armoured column during the night. What they experienced much more acutely was the anarchy that followed the collapse of Saddam's government. Samarra wasn't in the U.S. battle plan except as a potential bump on the road to Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, which was to be occupied before it could become a focal point of resistance. As the U.S. military passed by, sheikhs from Samarra came out and asked them to keep passing by, saying there were no Baathists in town. The military obliged because there weren't nearly enough troops or resources to occupy and control the entire Sunni triangle - and partly because of this deficiency, the Sunni insurgency had enough oxygen to begin to draw breath.

Samarra was a focal point of the insurgency in the early years. What began as a mainly Baathist and tribal resistance gradually took on a religious tone, mainly because it was much easier to recruit both at home and abroad for a jihad against the Great Satan than it was for a restoration of traditional Sunni rule in Iraq. The Shi'a, who had endured decades of persecution under Saddam Hussein, now found the al-Askari mosque smack bang in the middle of a vast section of Iraq ruled by Sunni militants and terrorists, a situation which the central government and the coalition forces struggled against for years.

Having not conquered Iraq properly the first time around, the U.S. now had to take the Sunni triangle, city by painful city. Throughout 2004, they focused on Fallujah, believed to be the base of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the foreign-led Sunni terrorist group that was responsible for the worst bombings of Shi'a civilians. It was this group more than anyone who helped tip Iraq into civil war - they bombed Shi'a cities and areas of Baghdad, prompting the Shi'a to form self-defence groups like the Mehdi Army to do the job that the government could not: protect their communities. Believing that the worse it gets, the better it is, al-Qaeda in Iraq did their utmost to encourage a bitter cycle of ethnic cleansing and violence with the goal of plunging Iraq into bloody chaos, all the better to build an Islamic state on the ruins. And in 2006, they committed what was in one way their most heinous act of all: they bombed the al-Askari mosque.

The men who bombed the al-Askari mosque were most likely not Iraqis. Saddam had left the mosque untouched and local Sunnis venerated it; it was part of their city, part of their heritage, even if not part of their beliefs. The bombing - an audacious, high-profile, seemingly-pointless incitement - had all the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda attack. The foreigners who made up al-Qaeda in Iraq's organization were takfirists, literally "excommunicators", who do not believe Shi'a are true Muslims. This extreme form of Sunni belief seemed to be gaining traction in 2006, as local and more moderate Sunni sheikhs saw nowhere to turn but to al-Qaeda to protect them from the Shi'a militias and the government in Baghdad. But in bombing the al-Askari mosque, al-Qaeda showed the extent of their ambition: to touch off a civil war between Sunni and Shi'a that could never be controlled. And they very nearly got their wish.

Iraqis woke up to find their country engulfed in sectarian violence after the bombing of the mosque. The destruction of such a major building was like an Iraqi 9/11. Shi'a rage at Sunnis peaked and death squads roamed the streets of Baghdad at will, killing and displacing Sunnis, assassinating their imams and burning their mosques. Hundreds of people died in attack and counter-attack, protest and counter-protest. With a security vacuum pervading throughout the country and al-Qaeda operating with enough impunity to bomb major Shi'a sites, the two communities appeared irreconcilable.

Coalition forces tried to impose their will on the situation again and again, but it was no use, because their numbers and intelligence were not sufficient to stem the bloodshed. A state of true civil war in Iraq dates from that bombing, and its end would not come until the U.S. troop surge in 2007 finally began to put a lid on the violence.

* * *

The arrival of more U.S. forces in 2007, and the increased efficiency of the Iraqi central government's forces, began to break the back of the Sunni insurgency. Crucial to this process was the Awakening Movement, a gradual move by Sunni tribal sheikhs away from al-Qaeda. The bombing of the al-Askari mosque, together with all the other symbolic and mass-casualty attacks the terrorists perpetrated, helped moderate Sunnis to realize that al-Qaeda weren't out for their interests. And so, Sunni sheikhs started cutting deals with U.S. forces to help them drive out the terrorists and protect their own communities. In turn, the U.S. promised that it would make sure the Shi'a government in Baghdad defended the interests of the Sunni tribesmen and treated them equally as Iraqis.

Then, in June 2007, al-Qaeda bombed the mosque again.

This time the two remaining spiral minarets were destroyed. But the reaction across the country showed how much had changed since the year before. Every major religious leader called for restraint and condemned reprisal attacks. The influential leader of the Mehdi Army, the main Shi'a armed group, said that the perpetrators were not true Sunnis and so the community should not be targetted for retaliation. Iraqis had looked into the abyss and the abyss had looked into them, and this time things would be different. The government imposed curfews across the country and stepped up security around Sunni mosques. Dozens of bodies still turned up, but there was an air of having being here before, and being all the wiser for it; and the attack in time came to be seen as a last hurrah for a dying movement of extremists who had drenched Iraq in blood and brought no benefit to its people.

In late 2007, U.S. and Iraqi forces retook Samarra. With the help of local Sunni moderates who were sick of al-Qaeda's draconian imposition of Islamic law and random violence, al-Qaeda were driven from the town and it was reconnected with the rest of the country. Iraqi society had proved resistant to the shocks of sectarian violence, to a point, but only the crucial role of the United States as a neutral mediator between the communities could have convinced the local Sunnis to co-operate with the Shi'a government in the expulsion of the fanatics.

Throughout 2008, the al-Askari mosque has begun to be rebuilt as a symbolic testament to the rebuilding of Iraq and inter-sect relations. It is heavily guarded by Iraqi government forces, and Samarra is a much less brutal place. But just because those who tore it down to begin with are gone does not mean the mosque does not face challenges yet. Only if there comes a point when Shi'a pilgrims can travel unmolested, year after year, through the Sunni triangle to one of their holiest sites can the American enterprise in Iraq be said to have achieved its goal. In seeking this outcome, it will befit the Shi'a government, as it rebuilds a site that encapsulates the Shi'a experience of persecution at the hands of an unjust earthly ruler, to exercise its power wisely over Iraq's Sunnis. If they do not learn to live at peace together, then Iraq's sects can see their future in the smoking rubble of the al-Askari mosque. It can, and may well, be demolished a thousand more times yet.

Various facts about the mosque and the imams taken from Wikipedia. Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq is the standard military history of the war, which recounts the Samarra episode. But my main source is my memory and years of reading about this long, bloody war.

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