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Samarra mosque at risk from new police barracks

There are fears that the new station will be a target for insurgents; Unesco powerless to protect the World Heritage site

Barracks which will eventually house over 1,500 Iraqi policemen are under construction at Samarra, close to one of Iraq’s most famous monuments, the Great Mosque of Caliph Al-Mutawakkil with its celebrated 52-metre-high spiral minaret.

Building is taking place just months after the archaeological remains of the ninth-century city of Samarra were added to Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites in danger.

Archaeologists fear that the new barracks and training centre, will become a major target for insurgent attacks and will further damage the remnants of ancient Samarra which was the capital of the Abbasid Empire between 836 and 892 AD.

In mid-October the main police headquarters in the city were attacked by a suicide bomber driving an explosive laden fuel tanker and 60 gunmen armed with rocket-propelled grenades. At least eight people were killed and many surrounding buildings destroyed.

The construction of the new barracks was first reported by Jeff Emanuel, a Special Forces veteran. A photograph published on his blog (and reproduced above) shows Iraqi workers on the site. According to Dr Alastair Northedge, Professor of Islamic art and archaeology at the Sorbonne, Paris, and an expert on ancient Samarra, this shows the barracks to be adjacent to the remains of Sur Isa, a palace believed to have been built by Caliph Al-Mutawakkil around 852 to 853 AD. Dr Northedge is concerned that while the construction might or might not touch the palace, accompanying activities would certainly spread over it. He also told The Art Newspaper that the barracks appear to cover the site of a residential quarter of the Abbasid city once inhabited by influential Turkish princes.

Since the beginning of the war, archaeologists have been deeply concerned about military activity on and around the site of Samarra’s Abbasid city which is one of the largest archaeological sites in the world and includes remains of palaces, mosques, hunting parks and race tracks, spread over an area of around 50 kilometres on both sides of the river Tigris. The spiral minaret has been periodically used by US troops as a gun position and in 2005 the top was damaged by a bomb planted by insurgents. There are also fears that a giant berm or earthen barrier raised to encircle the modern city in 2005 may have cut through archaeological remains.

In June, the archaeological city of Samarra was inscribed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site and immediately placed on the list of World Heritage sites in danger. However, because of the security situation, no Unesco personnel have been able to visit Samarra this year and its addition to the Unesco list seems unlikely to have any immediate impact.

Christina Dahlman, Programme Specialist at the Unesco Office for Iraq, told The Art Newspaper that no measures for the physical protection of the site have yet been possible and that her office, which is currently based in Jordan, was never consulted on the construction of the police barracks. “To our knowledge the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage which manages the site and is Unesco’s main partner in Iraq, was not consulted either,” she said.

Samarra is a stronghold for Sunni insurgents and the security situation has also delayed the reconstruction of the al-Askari Shrine, one of Iraq’s holiest sites for Shiite Muslims. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has come under increasing pressure to repair the golden-domed shrine which has become a symbol of sectarian divisions in Iraq. A scheme to reconstruct the shrine was agreed between Unesco and the government of Iraq shortly after it was bombed for the second time on 13 June. The Unesco budget for the first phase of the project is $10m with $5.4m from the European Commission and $4.6m from the Iraqi Government.

Ms Dahlman said preparatory work had commenced and that work on the site is expected to start before the end of this month, as soon as the Iraqi government could guarantee the security of the project.