Is Samarra the key to reducing sectarian tension in Iraq?
The Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions in the city of Samarra are back on the front burner. Sunni politicians, clerics and a number of individuals have been hurling accusations on social media sites and in various newspapers at some government officials, accusing them of attempting to turn Sunni cities — which are home to the shrine of the 11th and 12th Imams in Twelver Shiite Islam — into Shiite towns.
The Samarra district is located to the east of the Tigris River, in Salahuddin governorate, 160 kilometers (99 miles) northwest of the capital, Baghdad. The city is of great historical value, as it was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate during the 19th century.
It is famous for the Great Mosque of Samarra and its minaret, the Malwiya Tower (pictured below). Moreover, the Sunni-majority city is home to the shrine of Imams Ali al-Haid and Hasan al-Askari, who are the 11th and 12th Imams of Twelver Shiite Islam.
The shrine was bombed by al-Qaeda during an incident in 2006, which led to the outbreak of sectarian violence across the country.
In 2005, Iraqi law charged the Shiite Endowment — the body that manages the affairs of holy places — with the affairs of the shrine. The Sunni Endowment objected to this law, as it considered the shrine to be located within its jurisdiction. However, as per the law, the Shiite Endowment took it upon itself to rebuild and expand the destroyed shrine.
Sunnis continue to object to this law today, and it is among their most pressing and notable demands.
Tension in the city escalated in 2010, when the Shiite Endowment started buying lands surrounding the shrine. This issue preoccupied the Iraqi public for two years until the Iraqi judiciary ordered it to stop land acquisition in 2012.
In a phone interview with Al-Monitor, engineer Muhannad al-Badri, the editor-in-chief of the local Salam newspaper, confirmed that landowners started to sell their lands given the tempting offer they were receiving — $2,000 per square meter (11 square feet).