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Iraqi Prime Minister pushes for Samarra rebuild after mosque loses final minarets in second attack

At least 18 shrines have been attacked since last February, says antiquities head

The Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al Maliki, has revealed plans for the immediate reconstruction of the Al Askariya shrine at Samarra. He announced that a contract had been signed with the United Nations’ cultural watchdog, Unesco, just three days after a bombing raid destroyed both minarets of the so-called Golden Mosque on 13 June. Its shimmering dome was shattered by an earlier bomb in February 2006.

According to Unesco’s Iraq office representative Mohamed Djelid, Unesco and the Iraqi government have signed an agreement for the first phase of a restoration project on the shrine. Expected to take ten months, this will be funded with $8.4m provided by the United Nations Development Group Iraq Trust Fund and the Iraqi government, and will focus on preventing further collapse of the building and surveying the site in advance of any actual rebuilding. But work will only begin when the security conditions in Samarra can be guaranteed by the Iraqi government.

The shrine contains the tombs of the tenth and 11th Imams—direct descendants of the Prophet—and honours the 12th “hidden Imam” or “Mahdi” who many Shiite Muslims believe will one day return as a messiah. Shiite leaders criticised the Iraqi government for having done nothing to repair or protect the building before the second attack.

But according to press agency AFP, a Turkish firm engaged by Unesco and the government to carry out work earlier this year judged that the security situation at Samarra was too dangerous for it to continue.

The June attack on the Samarra shrine has fuelled sectarian conflict in Iraq, and led to numerous reprisals against Sunni mosques, seven of which were attacked in the two days after in and around Baghdad, as were the shrine of Talha bin Ubaidallah and the mosque of Al Ashra al-Mubashara near the Shiite city of Basra in the south of Iraq.

There is a belief among some observers, that the bombing may be linked to the destruction of sufi shrines across Iraq in the weeks before the Samarra blast. “Samarra is not an isolated incident, it is policy of destroying all shrines,” Iraqi archaeologist Lamia al-Gailani Werr told The Art Newspaper. “This is nothing to do with sectarian conflict. It is a Wahhabi agenda.”

The Wahhabi ideology, fomented in Saudi Arabia, opposes worship at the tombs of saints and mystics which are the focus of most shrines. At the end of May, a huge car bomb damaged the shrine of the highly revered 12th-century sufi Abdul Qadir al-Gilani in Baghdad.

Other recent attacks on smaller shrines were described by Dr Abbas al-Hussainy, head of Iraq’s Board of Antiquities and Heritage, in a presentation at the British Museum on 7 June. He said that 18 shrines had been destroyed since last February, ten in recent weeks.

Despite this, the most holy Shiite sites, most notably the shrine of Ali in Najaf, and the tomb of Ali’s son Hussein in Karbala, have remained well protected within these Shiite dominated cities. Pilgrims from Iran continue to visit them in their millions. On 18 May, Mansour Haqiqatpour, head of Iran’s organisation for preserving religious sites, told Iranian reporters that 600 billion rials ($64.5m) had been spent to restore sacred sites in Iraq over the past four years.

“We would be ready to help expand and fortify the holy site of Samarra if security is implemented there.”

However, Donny George, former head of Iraq’s Board of Antiquities and Heritage, told The Art Newspaper that unregulated outside involvement in the restoration of historic buildings is very problematic. “It is a big mistake, they tend to make many changes to the structures. A few years ago an Indian Shiite organisation gave millions of dollars for the repair of the Imam Ali shrine in Kufa and they changed 90% of the building.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Second attack on Samarra mosque destroys remaining minarets'