Samarra, Iraq — It’s another sunny day, and as I walk with a few soldiers away from the Golden Mosque, turning the corner to enter the adjacent Bank Street market, we encounter the stout and gruff-looking Iraqi National Police officer in charge of security at the mosque. He tells us that over 20,000 Shia pilgrims have visited the shrine in the past ten days, bringing badly needed business back to the market. After two years of delays, the security situation has improved sufficiently to allow mosque reconstruction to begin, and pilgrims to return.
The shops along this market, and industries throughout Samarra, are slowly coming back to life. In 2007, al-Qaeda strong-armed businesses into closing, even firing indiscriminately into markets to deter their existence. This brutal bravado is a thing of the past, but deeper civic problems remain, severely curtailing Samarra’s ability to fully rebuild. While the city’s soul has been reborn, piles of rubble, bombed out buildings, and unemployed young men still dominate Samarra’s streetscape.
As outlined in previous posts, security gains in Samarra have been dramatic: IED attacks are down 97 percent, small-arms attacks are down 80 percent, and confiscated enemy weapons caches are up by 800 percent since December 2007. We’ve at last created the necessary security environment for economic and political progress — the first and most important step in any counterinsurgency fight. The rest of the country experienced this transformation in 2007; it took another year for Samarra to catch on.
But crumbling sidewalks and roads, unreliable water and electricity, and under-developed government leadership prevent Samarrans from putting the devastation of the past five years fully behind them. When I served in Samarra, we did our best to address development and reconstruction, to little avail. Today, the American unit in Samarra — “No Slack” infantry battalion — has the chance to pick up our slack.
You might ask: Why is this our business? Why should Americans spend the time, money, and manpower to address governance and reconstruction in Iraq? The answer is not only, or even primarily, Samarra’s people. While I personally sympathize with their plight — “no one should live this way,” No Slack’s commander reiterated during my recent visit — rebuilding the city and putting its people to work is in America’s strategic interest. Clean water, abundant electricity, well-paved roads, open schools, teeming markets — these are America’s most potent weapons in limiting the propagation of al Qaeda’s worldview.
When I worked on governance in Samarra two years ago, our top responsibility was to develop the city council to create the indigenous mechanisms necessary to sustain local reconstruction and, eventually, manage redevelopment money. Aside from security concerns — which can’t be underestimated — three main factors prevented durable progress for Samarra in 2006: lack of broad political cooperation, absence of local budget money, and nonexistent provincial representation in Tikrit. All three are currently being addressed — with varying success, but they are being addressed.
When I arrived in Samarra last week, I was surprised to see the same mayor — Mahmood Khalaf Ahmed Al Bazzi — still at the helm. A coy and calculating man, he fled to Syria at the height of violence in 2007, only to return three months ago. (It was a wise decision: during his absence, al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents assassinated the interim mayor.) While Mayor Mahmood is not a natural leader, he is a competent administrator, and genuinely has Samarra’s best interests in mind. We shared a meal together upon my return, and he invited me to attend a city council meeting the next day.