WASHINGTON, February 7, 2014 – Eight years ago, in February 2006, the al-Askari Mosque bombing took place in Samarra, Iraq igniting some of most major sectarian strife the country had seen since US forces invaded. On February 22, 2006 bombs were detonated inside the al-Askari Mosque, destroying the iconic golden dome and severely damaging the building.
Originally constructed in the year 944 AD, it is one of the holiest mosques for Shiite Muslims, and holds the tombs of the 10th and 11th Shia Imams and two of their female relatives. The eleventh Imam was named Hasan al-Askari, providing inspiration for the name of the mosque.
The bombing sparked fierce clashes throughout Iraq, and Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who commands a massive following amongst Shia Muslims, issued a ruling that it was forbidden for anyone to attack a Sunni mosque. He also called for a weeklong period of mourning, moves widely believed to have prevented civil war from erupting in Iraq.
Despite being a major site for Shiite pilgrimage called the “Ziyarat,” following the attack, many Shia tour operators refused to visit the area, fearing violence. Sensing slowness on the part of the Iraqi government to guarantee safety and re-open the al-Askari Mosque, Grand Ayatollah Najafi, another important leader of the Shia Muslim community, demanded action be taken.
Not waiting for a response, he announced that he would be personally performing the Ziyarat to Samarra. Government officials scrambled to take action, and following Grand Ayatollah Najafi’s arrival at the newly reopened shrine, Shia tour operators resumed their visits.
Historically, the city has always been of importance to both Sunnis and Shiites. For the Sunnis, it was the capital city of the Abbasid Empire for more than a hundred years. For Shias, it is the final resting place for two of its leaders, who were wrongfully persecuted throughout their lifetimes.
A chronicled account of the city and Imam al-Askari describes the geography and reasons for importance of Samarra:
“Samarra (Surre Mun Ra’) was a [military] town about 60 miles north of Baghdad. [The] River Euphrates flows in the middle of the town, and because of the surrounding hills a cool breeze keeps the area cooler in comparison to Baghdad. The word ‘Asker’ in Arabic is used for army. Our 11th Imam’s title became known as Askari, the one who lived all his life in a [army barracks] town…
Imam Hasan al Askari’s … life, from [his] childhood to adulthood was spent in [the] house where his father Imam ‘Ali Naqi … was to remain under house arrest…
But in spite of all that suffering and confinement under house arrest in Samarrah, many students of Islam benefited from his God gifted knowledge and later became scholars in their fields.” (Story of the Holy Ka’aba, by S.M.R. Shabbar)
Now, the al-Askari Mosque maintains a regularly updated Facebook page, and is preparing for a large celebration marking birthday of the late Shiite Imam to take place next week. The Facebook page showcases progress made by the shrine, and many view it as symbolizing their dedication to the shrine in the face of terrorism. Of course, the celebrations are not without concern, as recent weeks have seen an increase in attacks near the shrine.
Perhaps predicting reprisal attacks and unending violence near his shrine, Imam Hasan al-Askari is famously known to have said, “Let this moral lesson suffice: refrain from doing anything which you would disapprove of if done by someone else.”
The golden dome destroyed in the original attack is on schedule to be restored.