Mosque rebuilding work begins

THURSDAY, FEB. 7, 2008

BAGHDAD – The Iraqi government announced Wednesday that it’s taken initial steps to rebuild the famed Golden Dome shrine in Samarra, whose destruction two years ago helped unleash sectarian warfare between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

It will be years before the shrine, which for nearly a millennium had been a focal point of Shiite worship, is restored. But Gen. Rashid Felaiyah, the Interior Ministry’s commander of operations in Samarra, said workers had begun going through the rubble of the mosque Monday in search of historically significant pieces that should be incorporated into the rebuilding.

A coalition forces spokesman, Maj. Winfield Danielson, called the work “a step toward healing the sectarian wounds.”

But many Iraqis are less certain that the project will do much to tamp down the sectarian violence that exploded after unknown men invaded the shrine, known as Askariya, on Feb. 22, 2006, and planted explosives that blew away its dome. Last June, bombers toppled the remaining minarets.

Samarra remains a conflicted area. Security officials announced Tuesday that at least 55 bodies had been found in a mass grave near the city, and three gunmen killed a Sunni cleric Wednesday.

Shiites were skeptical that they’d be likely to visit the shrine anytime soon. It houses the tombs of Imam Ali al Hadi, who died in 868, and his son, Imam al Askari, who died in 874. Both are descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

“It’s not safe to go to Samarra,” said Muhanad al-Timimi, a Shiite who lives in northern Baghdad. “The building has no relationship to sectarian violence so it cannot reduce it.”

Sunni and Shiite groups continue to vie for control in Samarra, a traditionally Sunni city. On Wednesday, three gunmen killed Essam Felaih, a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars of Iraq and the imam of the Sunni Mukhtar mosque in central Samarra, police said.

The mass grave was discovered after police raided a stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni group, in the Jazeera area northwest of Samarra. Ten Iraqis who were freed in the raid provided information that led to the grave’s discovery.


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