Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Poll Widens Sectarian Schism in Pilgrimage City

Election campaign targeting Shia pilgrims in Sunni-dominated Samarra shows politics still defined by sect.
The man hanging election banners was a stranger to Samarra and had no desire to linger. While his colleague kept a nervous lookout, he hastily placed an advertisement for a prominent Shia politician in the centre of this overwhelmingly Sunni city.

“I’m in a hurry, I can’t talk to you,” he said, when approached for an interview. Before speeding off in a pickup truck, he asked this reporter for the quickest route out of town.

Shia Arabs still tread carefully in Samarra, four years after the bombing of the Al-Askari shrine by Sunni insurgents. The 2006 attack on the Shia pilgrimage site marks the point for many Iraqis when their country’s sectarian conflict began to resemble a civil war.

An ancient city of half a million people, Samarra is somewhat safer now. Much of the damage to its golden-domed shrine has been repaired. Over the last few years, the pilgrims have been making a cautious return, their route secured by blast walls and thousands of soldiers.

The peaceful resumption of the annual pilgrimage has been seized upon by politicians as proof that the scars of sectarianism in Iraq are healing amid improving security.

This year, the late February date for the pilgrimage marking the death of the ninth-century Imam Hasan al-Askari coincided with preparations for nationwide parliamentary elections, scheduled for March 7. Along the route to the shrine, the pilgrims were preceded by campaign workers for coalitions dominated by the Shia parties that lead Iraq’s current government.

In interviews with IWPR, the city’s Sunni Arabs said they did not object to the Shia pilgrims, but felt alienated or alarmed by the apparently sectarian message of the campaign ads targeting them. Buildings near the shrine were covered in banners claiming credit for the reconstruction of the holy site and victory over the forces that had bombed it.

“Shia politicians exploit their citizens when campaigning like this,” said Sattar Abdul Kareem, a grocer from Samarra. “They use religion to coerce their supporters.... we do not fear ordinary Shia, we fear the extremists among them.”

Laith Omar, a teacher, echoed this view. “We are not worried about Shia people, we are worried about their politicians,” he said. “Putting up so many posters means they want the city for themselves. They have made ordinary Sunnis and Shia fear each other.”

Abdullah Jafar, a retired professor of politics, told IWPR the campaign by Shia-led coalitions in Samarra was addressed at the pilgrims’ anxieties.

“Shia pilgrims feel insecure in a Sunni area, so this is a good chance to appeal for their support, particularly as it is also a Shia holy occasion,” he said.

In the early days of the election campaign, the biggest Shia-led coalitions tried to broaden their appeal by including prominent Sunni Arabs in their ranks. Shia leaders such as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought to recast themselves as secular nationalists, mindful that many voters blamed the politics of faith for the recent years of bloodshed.

However, sectarian issues have dominated campaigning in recent weeks, after a controversial order banning scores of election candidates on charges of sympathising with Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party. The committee that issued the ban is overseen by Shia politicians running for election. Candidates from coalitions competing against them were targeted by the order, including leaders popular with Sunni Arabs and secular-minded voters.

The ban, enacted under so-called de-Baathification laws, won the broad backing of the Shia-led coalitions, which draw their support from the southern provinces and parts of Baghdad. It was bitterly contested by opposition lists, such as Iraqiya, which are popular in areas with a Sunni Arab majority to the north and west of Baghdad, such as Samarra.

Voters in the city said they did not believe the Shia-led coalitions had much support beyond the Shia community.

“I am astonished to see so many Shia posters in the city,” Salih Hammadi, the owner of a clothes store in Samarra, said. “No one here will vote for them as there are no Shia families in the city.”

Farooq Saad, a teacher from the city, said the banner near the shrine promoted “Shia lists for Shia people”. Looking at the poster of a candidate from a bloc that includes Iraq’s largest Shia party, he asked, “Who is this man? I do not know him.”

Saad said he did not believe the mainstream Shia politicians could represent Samarra. “If they claim to do so, why did they ban our leaders from elections?” he asked, referring to the de-Baathification order against candidates.

He added that he mistrusted Sunni Arab politicians who had joined the Shia-led coalitions, “They have Sunni faces but sectarian plans.”

Abdul Qader Awad, a labourer, said he felt the tone of the campaign advertising was accusatory, “Their posters carry phrases about the shrine that make it seem as if Samarra’s locals were the ones who bombed it.”

“It is our shrine, how can we attack it? What did the Shia government grant us, except a bad reputation as bombers and supporters of al-Qaeda?”

Some half a million pilgrims are estimated to have visited the shrine this year, including many who had travelled from Iran, India and Afghanistan. The top security official in Samarra, Major-General Rashid Felayih, told reporters no casualties or security breaches had been reported.

Interaction between the pilgrims and the residents of Samarra was limited. Most of the visitors sought refreshment at temporary stalls set up along the pilgrimage’s path, rather than at nearby businesses owned by the city’s residents.

“They think we will poison them,” Shakir Kerayim, a Samarra resident and owner of a restaurant leading to the shrine, said. “They have been warned before coming here.”

This year, the February 22 anniversary of the bombing of the shrine roughly coincided with the pilgrimage date.

Jabar Hamad Thejell, a Shia pilgrim from Diwaniya in southern Iraq, said the overlapping dates had a point, “God is telling us that those who bombed our shrine are the same criminals who killed our Imam centuries ago.”

Shehab Hatam, a Shia labourer from the impoverished Baghdad suburb of Sadr City, said he regarded Samarra as the “city of our Imam”.

“Whenever I come here, I wonder how someone could bomb the shrine of such a great man. Even though it is being rebuilt, I cannot forget such a brutal act,” he said.

Asked what he thought of the campaign publicity on the route to the shrine, he said, “Politicians can put their posters anywhere, I see no wrong in it.”

He said he could not recall seeing any advertising for other lists, “I don’t know if there are any posters for Sunni candidates, I was not focusing on them.”

Mahmud Salih is an IWPR trainee in Samarra.

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.