In February 2006 the Shiite shrine at Samarra was bombed. In subsequent months Shiite militias responded with a wave of attacks that eventually led to Iraq descending into a sectarian civil war. Civilian deaths went from 2,165 in February according to the United Nations to eventually shooting up to 3,590 by July. Over 1.6 million were displaced as a result. On March 6, 2009 however a remarkable event happened. Over one million Shiite pilgrims returned to the Samarra shrine in an example of grassroots reconciliation.
Samarra, a Sunni city, is the burial place for two revered Shiite Imams. Those are the Imam Hasan Askari and his father Imam Ali Hadi. Both are descendents of the Prophet Mohammad. The death of the Imam Askari is usually celebrated with a pilgrimage to Samarra. On March 6 over one million Shiites from across the country made this trip, the first time since the 2006 bombing. Moqtada al-Sadr also called for his followers to join in the procession.
The city was heavily guarded by the Iraqi security forces, which erected blast walls along the path of the pilgrims. Even though some Shiites complained that they were not able to interact with the local Sunni population that much, there were still tents and food vendors set up to greet the visitors. 5,000 Sunnis and Shiites even went to a joint prayer service at a Sunni mosque, and then marched down the streets chanting anti-violence slogans.
While there are anecdotal reports of Iraqis being tired of the sectarian war, the events at Samarra are a specific example of that new status quo. The symbolism was strong as it took place at the starting place of the civil war. There are still many problems in Iraq, but it appears that at least for the people that made the pilgrimage to Samarra, and those that greeted them wanted to put part of Iraq’s bloody past behind them.
International Organization for Migration, “Three Years Of Post-Samarra Displacement In Iraq,” 2/22/09
O’Hanlon, Michael, Campbell, Jason, “Iraq Index,” Brookings Institution, 1/30/09
Rasheed, Hamid, “Sow of Sunni-Shiite unity in Iraq,” Los Angeles Times, 3/7/09
Schofield, Matthew, “Iraqi pilgrims visit Samarra’s bombed mosque once again,” McClatchy Newspapers, 3/6/09