US snipers co-opt Samarra mosque’s spiral minaret

The US military says “military necessity” takes precedence over the safeguarding of this Islamic landmark


At the time of going to press, US army snipers were positioned at the top of the great spiral minaret of the 9th century al-Mutawakkil mosque in Samarra. Armed with 50 calibre rifles and working in 24-hour two-man shifts, the soldiers watch over this turbulent city in the Sunni triangle north of Baghdad, which continues to be a hotbed of resistance against the Coalition.

The 172-foot-high minaret, known as the Malwiya (spiral in Arabic), has a commanding view of the surrounding area, and the US army says that positioning snipers at its summit has drastically reduced the number of roadside bombs targeting military vehicles. Nevertheless, their presence has raised concerns for the safety of one of the most important buildings in the history of Islamic architecture, of such significance for Iraqis that it is depicted on the new 250 dinar banknote.

Last October, 5,000 US and Iraqi government troops stormed the city of Samarra in a massive show of force. US military sources say that the distinctive minaret was wrested from the control of insurgents who were using it to mount attacks against US troops. The Art Newspaper was unable to confirm this independently. It is a crucial point because it is an important basis for the legal occupation of an historical monument. The presence of US soldiers on the minaret appears to have drawn the fire of insurgents. On 2 January, the Washington Post reported that the minaret was being shot at regularly, and published a photograph showing a large impact crater in the western side of the building, made by a rocket propelled grenade or mortar. On 25 January, Reuters spoke with some of the soldiers of the

1st Battalion 26th Infantry Regiment posted on the minaret. “We get shot at all the time”, said Sgt Steve Langelier, while his commander, Capt William Rockefeller, in charge of the nine-man sniper team, said he had not received any complaints about using the minaret as a snipers’ nest. “You only have to wonder why the Iraqis shoot at their own minaret”, he said. The same article reported that “the external staircase that spirals around the brick building is littered with sniper shells”.

The mosque complex was built in 849-852 by the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil, who is said to have ridden up the spiral staircase of the minaret on a white Egyptian donkey. Samarra, founded in 1834-35 when the caliph al-Mu’tasim moved his capital from Baghdad, was a huge cosmopolitan city and for a long time the mosque was said to be the largest in the world. Professor Alastair Northedge of the Sorbonne in Paris, an expert on the archaeology of Samarra, told The Art Newspaper that at its height, the city had 42 palaces, four congregational mosques, four racecourses and 13 polo grounds, but went into decline when the caliphate moved back to Baghdad in 892.

According to Article 4 of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, “High Contracting Parties undertake to respect cultural property situated within their own territory...refraining from any use of the property and its immediate surroundings...for purposes which are likely to expose it to destruction or damage in the event of armed conflict”. This obligation may be waived in cases of “imperative military necessity”.

The law is reiterated in Article 53 of the 1977 Protocol Additional to the 1949 Geneva Convention. Although the US signed and ratified the original Convention, it has ratified neither the Additional Protocols nor the Hague Convention, but has a stated intention to abide by their principles. According to Islamic cultural heritage expert András Riedlmayer of Harvard University, “imperative military necessity” is not a perfect alibi in cases when cultural sites are damaged as a result of military action, being subject to the test of “proportionality”. Cases brought before the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia have included charges of destruction of cultural and religious heritage unjustified by military necessity, resulting in two recent convictions of Yugoslav officers involved in the bombardment of Dubrovnik (see p.1).

In response to questions by The Art Newspaper, US military spokesman Major Richard Goldenberg said: “Our coalition and Iraqi security forces take every possible measure to avoid risk to historic or cultural sites such as this. Under the law of land warfare, what would otherwise be a protected site may lose its protected status if enemy forces use the site to attack coalition forces. Unfortunately, insurgents who would violate the peace and security in this area have previously used the location to deliver violence upon Iraqi civilians, security forces and the soldiers of our task force.”

Major Goldenberg would not confirm if the minaret was still in use as a sniper post, but asked whether it might be possible to establish alternative positions away from such an important building, stated that “the value of safeguarding innocent Iraqis and our Iraqi security force partners, when considered in total, must take precedence”. He added that: “Using locations for observation has not, to date, invited response and in fact often provides a positive and securing influence whenever employed.” If press reports are correct, however, the US presence on the minaret is more than simply “observational”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'US snipers on Samarra’s spiral minaret'