by Felicity Arbuthnot CommonDreams 2/26/06
Travelling in Iraq during the regime of Saddam Hussein required permits to requested destinations and often wheedling, begging, boxes of baqlawa – a day’s calorie intake in one mouth watering, sticky delicacy – and, when all else failed, tears. Requesting a detour en route to a planned destination would me met with refusal and stern: ‘ you have not the permit …’ Except for Samarra. Travelling to and from northern Mosul, sighting the golden domes of the Askari shrine, glinting in the sun, thirty kilometres from the main road, the driver’s face (whether Shi’a, Sunni, Christian) always lit at the request.Permits forgotten, we would speed towards the great, golden spheres, growing ever, magnificently, shimmeringly larger, the closer approached. Samarra is in Salahuddin Governorate, named for the warrior credited with driving the Crusaders from Eqypt, Palestine and Syria.

From 836 A.D. to 891 A.D., Samarra was Mesapotamia’s Abbasid Capitol. Though the city’s prominece as first city was short, it’s scientific, literary and artistic splendours,remain legendary in Arab history. The tenth and eleventh Imams, Ali al-Hadi and his son Hassan al-Askari are entombed under the golden dome. The twelfth Imam, Muhammed al-Mahdi, who Shi’a believe will return as the world’s saviour, is believed born in Samarra. The spiral minaret (malwiya) a ‘syntheis of Babylonian ziggurat and Islamic architecture’, was described by British archeologist, Sir Mortimer Wheeler as having ‘ ..9th century qualities which bridge the centuries. The Malwiya is a truly great and rather lonely masterpiece ‘ of ‘.. startling originality.’ (Karen Dabrowska: Iraq, the Bradt Travel Guide.) US soldiers were unaware this haunting thousand year old structure was a great masterpiece and used it to snipe from, leading to it being irreperably damaged. Another gem of humanity’s history which survived the Mongul hordes, but not GI Joe.

Samarra, with Khadimain,now absorbed into greater Baghdad and the ancient holy cities of Kerbala and Najav, are places of reverence and pilgrimage. Najav where, for believers to be buried ‘and lie one day near Imam Ali’, cousin of the Prophet ‘is worth seven hundred years of prayer’ is to be rebuilt by those who brought the world Milton Keynes and a concrete cow. Samarra’s golden beacons of faith and mosque dating back to the 9th century, have now been blown up. Predictably, western politicians have talked up their divide and rule ethos. Implication being a Shi’a place of reverance being attacked by aggrieved Sunnis. Samarra, in fact is a predominately Sunni town and it’s religious and archeological treasures have been safely preserved for a thousand years. Iraqis will say they have also lived together for nearly a thousand years and division is invasion’s tool.

Accusations, claims, conspiracy theories predictably, came thick and fast. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cited the tragedy as:’ .. acts of a group of defeated Zionists and occupiers, who intend to hit our emotions.’ In the southern holy town of Qom, where many demonstrators cried openly, the Head of the Association of Seminary Instructors blamed US forces who : ‘ aim to stoke differences which never existed.’ Respected, influential Eqyptian Cleric and scholar, Sheikh Yusef Al Qardawi commented: ‘No one benefits from such acts except the US occupation’ . King Abdullah of Jordan cited a ‘heinous’ act, which Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Samioni said was aimed at : ‘ ..splitting Shiite and Sunni Moslems’. Lebanese Hizbolla blamed: ‘US occupation and lurking Zionist enemy’; Kuwait’s new leader, Emir Sabah Al Ahmed Sabah, stranded on the fence between the US military Crusaders based in his miniscule country and millions of enraged, insulted, grief stricken of the Muslim faith, hemming it in, barely rose to the occasion, saying such acts were ‘ … not the teaching of Islam.’ Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who recently reportedly refused an Iraqi passport in favour of his Iranian one, appeared,surreally,silently on television from his Najav base and Moqtada Al Sadr, dubbed ‘firebrand’ Shi’a cleric, cut short a visit to Lebanon, instructing his followers to fan across the country and help defend Sunni Mosques.
President Bush and Prime Minister Blair condemned the wickedness of those who attacked sacred sites (copy of decimation of holy sites by invasions bombs and bullets, ‘our boys’ US ‘boys’, follows to both) and in a gesture as crass and ignorant as anything aspired to in the last three years, offered to pay for the Shrine’s ‘rebuilding’. A thousand years of reverence, worship, pilgrimage, homage, intricate facade created in love at the last millenium’s dawn, embelished, repaired, enhanced, through the ages cannot be replaced like a garden wall damaged by a heavy foot on the accelarator – and absolutely not, by the declared Crusader’s shilling. Insult heaped on searing injury.

So: ‘Qui bono?’ who benefits from this historical desecration? Journalist Mike Whitney quotes Leslie H. Gelb, Professor Emeritus on the (US) Council of Foreign Relations (New York Times, 25th November 2003) talking of the necessary break up of Iraq, in order to control region and oil. ‘Washington would have to be very hard headed to engineer this break up. But such a course is manageable – even necessary’ to facillitate control. The ‘ ..only viable strategy may be to correct Iraq’s historical defect (emphasis added) and move in stages to a three state solution :Kurdish North, Sunni centre and Shi’ite south.’ The Balkanisation of Iraq, separating communities, marriages, indivisable links, coexisting – with Christians too – for centuries.
At the time of the bombing the world’s media was flooded with reports of the horror of the Islamic world (and indeed others) at the cartoons lampooning Islam’s Prophet as a terrorist and subjugator of women, the countless new pictures of Abu Ghraib’s horrors, published by and Al Rai, of the beating of kids, the embargoe’s and then the UK invaders victims in Basra, the Human Rights First Report on Guantanamo Bay’s horrors. They disappeared from the headlines. after Samarra. A knowledgeable friend of this publication told of early morning, the dawn the Shrine was bombed. A businesman friend who always rose early. left his home to buy goods and open his company by 7am.

‘By the Mosque,it was crawling with government, security, Iraqi Army people.’ A little later the explosion happened. ‘I had thought this was preparation for a routine visit by some official from Baghdad … ‘ The attack was expert.

The questions remain. I called another eminent Iraqi academic, old friend. Remembering Samarra, I said, my eyes kept welling. How did an Iraqi feel? Pause, then: ‘We can cry no more. There are no tears left.’

Felicity Arbuthnot is a London-based writer.