Vote will be a 'decisive point' for Samarrans
SAMARRA, Iraq — In the ninth century, the town of Samarra was the capital of the Abbasid Empire and one of the Muslim world’s most important cities. In modern times, religious tourists flocked to the town’s ancient mosques, where two of the original 12 Muslim caliphs are buried.
These days, a mini mall with “Kodak” painted on a crumbling yellow wall is one of the few reminders left of Samarra’s tourist trade. Two years of accumulated rubble and trash litter the city, known to U.S. servicemembers as one of the most consistently violent in Iraq.
“The trash and the standard of living are the things that bring this city down,” said Sgt. John Maltby, 25, of Crescent City, Fla. “That, and everybody is against everybody.”
Even in a country known for strong family loyalties, Iraqis recognize Samarra for its bloody tribal rivalries. Maltby and the soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment have patrolled Samarra’s streets since January. Ten among their ranks have died this year, including four in an August roadside bomb attack.
Highlights in Samarra are few and precious, but U.S. officials and the city mayor believe they have one coming Saturday. Samarrans, who overwhelmingly boycotted the polls during January’s elections, are expected to vote on the constitutional referendum.
“This is the decisive point for what we’ve been doing for a year in Samarra,” said Lt. Col. Mark Wald, commander of 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment. “They boycotted the last vote because they were in denial. So they got left behind.”
This time, Wald says, the sheiks who wield influence in Samarra say they are adamant about getting people to the polls. It was unclear Thursday which way they would vote on the referendum. Most were expected to vote against it until a deal allowing a review of the constitution was struck this week between Sunni and Shiite leaders in Baghdad.
Local sheiks met Wednesday and Thursday to discuss whether they would now support the referendum.
Seeing voters show up at the polls will be victory enough for Wald, who came to Samarra with millions of dollars available to local contractors for rebuilding the city. Organized crime seized the opportunity and took large cuts of the disbursements. Shoddy work made it worse, Wald said.
For example, the U.S. Army spent $40,000 on trash pickup. They recommended trucks and pickup methods to clean the city quickly. Once the contractor collected the money, he hired children to pick up trash in the streets for 25 cents a day.
Other funded projects never get started or fall prey to bombings, said Sgt. Michael Hendricks, 26, of Brunswick, Ohio.
“Every time we try and build something new or something nice for the kids, it gets sidetracked or attacked,” Hendricks said. “It’s frustrating. You try and help, but if they don’t want to be helped, what can you do?”
To curtail violence, soldiers have turned Samarra into a virtual fortress. In August, they surrounded the city with a steep 8- to 10-foot sand berm. Visible tracks where cars failed to climb the wall are a testament to its success, Wald said.
Since completing the berms Aug. 27, attacks have dropped from six per day to two per day. The berms and other roadblocks have limited all but three entryways to Samarra. Iraqi army troops, trained by U.S. military police, guard each control point.
Iraqi army troops are heavily guarding Samarra’s polling sites before and after the election. In most other cities, the Iraqi police guard the sites while the Iraqi army forms an outer security cordon.
However, of the 1,027 police hired in Samarra, “only about 60 ever show up for work,” Wald said.
The beginning of the violence
When Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, most of Samarra’s people welcomed U.S. troops into the city.
“The whole problem is, we had a wedding,” said Samarra’s mayor, who asked that his name be withheld for security reasons.
At a prominent wedding in 2003, revelers shot AK-47 rounds in the air — a common way to celebrate in Iraq. U.S. forces fired back, killing some of the attendees.
“Members of that party are now the key figures of the insurgency,” the mayor said. “Ever since then, people have refused to cooperate with the coalition.”
U.S. officials have tried to make up for the mistake, but acknowledge how deeply the incident affected the city.
“I’m being held accountable for that even two years later,” said Lt. Col. Mark Wald, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade, 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment.