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Saturday, April 18, 2009
Bombed Iraq shrine reopens to visitors
The gold-domed shrine of Samarra, whose destruction in 2006 unleashed a wave of sectarian killings, has been partially rebuilt and visitors have been allowed inside for the first time since it was toppled by insurgent bombs.
Al-Askari mosque is not yet its former self, with gold tiles yet to be fitted to its apex, but the restoration of the revered Shia site is being hailed as a milestone in Iraq's brittle revival.
Workers have rebuilt the shell of the dome, which was felled in February 2006, sparking sectarian bloodletting throughout Iraq that claimed countless lives and a mass exodus of refugees from which the war-ravaged state is yet to recover. The two minarets that were toppled in a follow-up attack a year later have also been restored.
The bombings, which were blamed on Sunni extremists linked to al-Qaeda, have been widely acknowledged as the two most lethal sectarian flashpoints in the six years of chaos that followed the invasion.
Samarra lies in the Sunni Arab heartland north of Baghdad and its elders have acted for centuries as custodians of the shrine, which is believed by Shia clerics to be the site to which the hidden imam will return after an apocalyptic last battle. It houses the remains of two Shia imams, Hasan al-Askari and Ali al-Hadi.
Since the bombings, Samarra has been a microcosm of the fragile gains seen elsewhere in Iraq. Its Shia minority is slowly returning and Sunni clerics have helped facilitate the shrine's reconstruction.
Visitors have been allowed inside the mosque for the past month, where artists continue to work on ancient Islamic calligraphy that was destroyed by the first bomb and the blaze that followed.
The bombing was the most audacious attack carried out by Sunni extremists in Iraq. They entered the mosque after midnight on 22 February 2006, tied up guards and rigged the building with explosives over the next five hours. The bombs detonated just before 7am, and chaos enveloped most Iraqi towns and cities within three months.
Shia shrines in Najaf and Karbala were also attacked, but none suffered damage on the same scale.
Iraqi security forces claim that the country's three Shia shrine cities are now largely secure and Arab tourists have joined Iranian pilgrims in flocking to the sites in droves during religious festivals.
Al-Qaeda-linked militants continue to target Shia pilgrims, but mainly on access routes to the shrine cities. A suicide bomber detonated a device next to the Imam Abbas mosque in Karbala in early February, killing close to 30 pilgrims.
Meanwhile, a suicide bomber today killed 15 Iraqi soldiers and injured 25 more at an Iraqi army camp in Habaniya, west of Baghdad. It was the second strike in the once restive Anbar province in two days. On Wednesday night, a car bomb detonated in the nearby town of Falluja. (Source: guardian co.uk)