March 7, 2009 in Nation/World

Iraqis return to mosque in Samarra

Matthew Schofield McClatchy

BAGHDAD – For the first time since bombs ripped apart the sacred golden dome of the ancient mosque in Samarra, Iraq, in 2006, millions of Shiite Muslim pilgrims returned to worship Friday.

They were commemorating the death 1,100 years ago of Imam Hassan al-Askari, who is buried in the shrine. Askari was a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad.

The pilgrimage, which took place without bomb or gun attacks, was another sign that the sectarian hatred that the dome bombing spurred, which threatened to rip the country apart, has calmed. The golden dome is a holy site, primarily to Shiites, in a predominantly Sunni Muslim city.

Many among the estimated 2 million to 3 million pilgrims who streamed to the ruins of the shrine praised their Sunni hosts. They said tribal leaders in the area had put up tents filled with free food, drink and medical care along the roads leading to the holy site. Pilgrims said the security presence was so strong that they spent the day without fear.

Most pilgrims made the trip in packed buses, some traveling 14 hours. Hassan Jawad, however, who’s 40 and blind, walked 75 miles from Baghdad.

“This pilgrimage is part of our national reunification,” he said.

It was also the latest showcase for Muqtada al-Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric. Iraqi officials had predicted that as many as a million pilgrims might make the trip, but then Sadr urged his followers a week ago to join the pilgrimage. Iraqi observers have noted that attendance perhaps tripled expectations.

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