One Year Later: the Bombing of Samarra’s Golden Mosque

One Year Later: the Bombing of Samarra’s Golden Mosque

The mosque's golden dome gleamed like a fallen sun, burning out the mud-colored city of Samarra with its broken shops and acres of cinderblock poverty. Two slender minarets framed the dome in regal style and a grid of delicate scaffolding wound around it, suggesting repairs planned and then stalled, probably because of the war. From the neighborhoods beyond, streams of black smoke bled into the winter sky above satellite dishes and slack electric wires.

I watched the dome through the battered back window of a U.S. medevac helicopter as it descended to retrieve wounded soldiers at a makeshift landing zone. Nothing in the ugly flatness of Samarra so matched its beauty, or so focused human attention. In my notebook I scratched a few sentences describing it and wondered if I could find a way to return and visit. At the time, I did not know the mosque's name or its significant place in the religious geography of Shiite Islam. I did not know I would be one of the last Westerners to see it intact.

Two days later, the dome, part of the Al Askariya shrine, one of the holiest Shiite sites in Iraq, disintegrated in a blast of golden splinters and concrete rubble. The bombing, carried out one year ago today by men disguised in Iraqi police uniforms, is widely considered a turning point in the nature of the war. Sunni insurgents, possibly members of al-Qaida, are thought to have carefully designed the attack to sever what thin restraints remained and force Sunnis and Shiites into civil war. If that was the goal, we have seen it succeed, and we have watched the American response to that opening act fail.

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