Beyond the surge, an Iraqi city suffers

A soldier with the 101st Airborne Division looks out at Samarra from an observation post in 2006. In the background stands a mosque minaret from the 9th Century, when Samarra was the seat of the Muslim empire.
A soldier with the 101st Airborne Division looks out at Samarra from an observation post in 2006. In the background stands a mosque minaret from the 9th Century, when Samarra was the seat of the Muslim empire. Tom Lasseter / MCT

SAMARRA, Iraq — Cities around Iraq are taking advantage of improved security to rebuild neighborhoods, but here, the ruins of a revered Shiite Muslim shrine bleed seamlessly into the desolation that is this city's downtown.

Samarra shows the limits of the U.S. surge, which has brought a modicum of calm to cities such as Fallujah, Baghdad and Ramadi. No additional troops have been sent here, no Sunni leader is stepping forward to rally his forces against foreign fighters, and there are no promises to rebuild.

The golden-domed al Askariya Mosque, which was destroyed in a February 2006 bombing that brought simmering sectarian violence to a boil, remains closed, engulfed by untouched mountains of rubble.

Blocks of shops around it also are closed, and there are no shoppers, much less religious pilgrims.

Al Qaida in Iraq, the radical Islamist group that's been vanquished in much of the country by an alliance between U.S. troops and Sunni Muslim tribesmen, remains a power to be reckoned with. There's been no surge of U.S. troops and no local leader willing to take on al Qaida. In fact, there are only 700 soldiers to hold this town of 90,000 residents, and the 2,000 Shiite police sent here to help are widely distrusted by the residents.

"The people are waiting to see who is going to win — the coalition forces or the terrorists," said Mahmoud Abbas, the Sunni mayor of Samarra, which is predominantly Sunni. "There is no sheik who will be the leader of Samarra because they are afraid of the foreign fighters. We need the support from the coalition forces the way they supported other areas."

Samarra became synonymous with Iraq's descent into violent sectarian warfare when insurgents entered the mosque in 2006 and placed explosive charges throughout the sanctuary, shattering the mosque's golden dome. This past summer, other bombs toppled the mosque's two remaining minarets.

Several U.S. units have attempted to turn Samarra around, the latest being the 2nd battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Ky., which deployed to Samarra on Oct. 25.

But without the additional resources that have been thrown into other cities, there's little to show for its efforts so far. The rejuvenation in other Iraqi cities has eluded Samarra, and there's no clear force in charge. Residents charge that the national police, some of them sent here by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, are arresting them for no reason and taking away their weapons.

"I think what we are doing is part of the surge. But Samarra is complicated," said Lt. Col. Joseph McGee, the battalion commander. "We have to somehow get people back to their shops."

The latest U.S. effort to turn Samarra around falls to Capt. Josh Kurtzman, 28, of Augusta, Maine, whose Charlie Company is based at a Samarra outpost.

Kurtzman, who's serving his third tour in Iraq, would like to build a Sunni-led force to patrol the city, as U.S. military officers have done in other parts of Iraq, so that the Shiite-led national police guard only the shrine and the periphery of the city. He also wants to open roads that were closed by a recent spate of violence. Together, that would create an economic boom, he said.

But a recent visit to one house by Kurtzman and McGee revealed the challenges. McGee asked a man who identified himself only as Mohammed al Baadri what he thought of his tribal leader. Would he respect that leader if he led a reconciliation effort?

"Absolutely not! His brother is a thief!" Baadri barked back. "They are all thieves."

McGee went on. What about the national police?

"The national police have done nothing for us. They take our weapons away. That's it," Baadri said. "Baghdad is safer."

Kurtzman turned to the other two unemployed men in the house, both college graduates who said they haven't had jobs for months. Would you join the local forces?

The men shook their heads. "I am an engineer," one said.

Al Qaida in Iraq grew stronger in Samarra in the early months of the surge. When U.S. forces cleared Ramadi, Fallujah and nearby Baqouba of Islamic extremists earlier this year, the escaping fighters fled to Samarra. They controlled the eastern part of the city, patrolling the neighborhoods and pushing out government forces. They recruited new fighters, sometimes forcibly, training them and sending them out to attack U.S. troops or rival Sunni factions. They paid them enough to support a family for a few weeks. In parts of the city, al Qaida in Iraq became a main employer.

U.S. officers say they're making gains against the Islamists, however. While U.S. troops are often attacked with small arms fire and explosives, so far no U.S. troops from the battalion have been killed in the city in since they arrived six weeks ago. Instead, U.S. officials said that they killed the city's al Qaida in Iraq leader, Talal Abd al Aziz, earlier this month, and that a rival Sunni group, Jaish al Islami, is pushing the al Qaida in Iraq militants out. Kurtzman estimates that about 150 core al Qaida in Iraq members remain in Samarra.

But residents said they're still afraid, choosing to stay hidden in their homes rather than get caught in a battle between al Qaida in Iraq and Jaish al Islami. Samarra, they said, has become a battleground for the future of the Sunni insurgency.

"I think once people believe al Qaida has been defeated, the reconciliation will begin," Kurtzman said. "People in this city have seen it go up before, and I think they are afraid it will go back down again."

And there's no doubt that residents don't trust the Shiite-dominated police forces, whose numbers rose after the minarets were bombed.

A day after meeting Mohammed al Baadri, Kurtzman sat down with a tribal leader, Sheik Eman Yassen al Baadri, a city council member. The sheik pleaded for the U.S. to help get released members of his tribe who were arrested by the national police. Kurtzman told him that that already had happened and that the sheik's men even at that moment were eating lunch with U.S. troops at the chow hall.

After a 40-minute discussion, the sheik agreed to another meeting and said that he might bring along other tribesmen.

But, he said, he cannot promise more.

"We are afraid," he said.