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Samarra shrine must be rebuilt: Unesco says reconstruction will help unite warring factions

The site is considered one of the holiest in Iraq, containing the remains of two of the Prophet's descendants

The reconstruction of the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra, which lost both of its minarets and sustained heavy damage to its famous golden domed mosque after being bombed twice in February 2006 and again in June 2007, has been identified as one of the most important cultural initiatives in Iraq. The shrine, one of the holiest sites in the country, contains the tombs of the tenth and 11th Imams—direct descendants of the Prophet.

The reconstruction, discussed at a meeting of Unesco’s International Coordination Committee for the Safeguarding of Iraqi Cultural Heritage (ICC) in Paris last month, is seen as an important attempt to reconcile warring Shiite and Sunni factions.

In addition to the ICC panel of 20 international experts, a delegation from Iraq representing many of the parties involved in the rebuilding process were present. They included Jaber Mohammad Abbas Al-Jaberi, Iraq’s Senior Deputy Minister of Culture, Dr Amira Edan, acting director of the State Board of Antiquities and director of the National Museum, Hak Al-Hakim, the Iraqi Prime Minister’s advisor on reconstruction, and members of both Sunni and Shiite waqf boards.

The purpose of the meeting was to establish objectives that have broad-based support within Iraq and at the same time reflect Unesco’s favoured policy of sustainable development.

Unesco has been involved in the reconstruction process at Samarra from an early stage and in June announced its inscription on the list of World Heritage sites in Danger.

The first phase of the project to rebuild the shrine is now well underway after being given urgent priority following the second bomb attack. While offers of funding were reported to have come from many sources including local tribal leaders and even a single individual, the initial budget of $12.6m has come from the European Commission and the Iraq government. A Turkish company which has already assisted in the rebuilding of two other mosques has been contracted to carry out the restoration work in collaboration with specially trained local artisans.

The need for historical accuracy in rebuilding the shrine was stressed by a number of speakers. In response it was stated that as far as possible original materials would be used and architectural records of the building would be consulted.

Underlining the efficacy of the heritage restoration as a means of reconciliation, parallels were drawn with Unesco’s rebuilding of the minaret of Jam in Afghanistan and the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia, both carried out in areas scarred by violence.

Some speakers raised concerns that monuments should receive attention at the expense of vital public services, and that funding might be depleted through corruption. Assurances were given that the project would be carried out by the inhabitants of Samarra, stimulating the local economy which is set to be bolstered by $50m in aid from the Iraq government.

However, progress remains seriously hampered by the security in the city where insurgents continue to mount regular attacks.