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Iran takes first step in reconstruction of Samarra mosque, a casualty of sectarian reprisals in Iraq

The shrine's restoration, which will be paid for by private sector investment, has been the subject of a deal brokered between ICHTO and the Iraqi Ministry of Culture

Iran has taken the lead role in the reconstruction of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, Iraq, as well as other Shiite holy sites damaged in the sectarian reprisals that swept the country after a massive explosion destroyed the shrine’s famous Golden Dome on 22 February.

News of the bombing brought swift offers of funds and assistance from many sources, including the US, UK and the United Nations. But it was the Research Centre of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organisation of Iran (ICHTO) which signed an agreement of co-operation for the restoration of the shrine with the Iraqi Ministry of Culture.

Iran has a long history of handling the maintenance and repair of the Shiite holy places, and there has been no shortage of ready funds for what many Iranians consider a religious duty.

Dr Taha Hashemi, director of ICHTO, told Iranian reporters that, “As Muslims, we must maintain our religious monuments, and to this end, [we] plan to make use of all [our] facilities and experts.”

Last July ICHTO announced that the repair and renovation of Shiite holy centres was a priority, and that private sector interest in investment was so strong that the initiative would not need government funding. The Iranian non-governmental organisation, Reconstruction Organisation of Holy Shrines in Iraq, which also announced that it was sending teams to help with the operations at Samarra, says it has completed over 300 projects in Iraq.

In the violent aftermath of the Askariya bombing, Shiite protesters attacked numerous Sunni mosques in Baghdad, while in Basra they set fire to a Sunni shrine containing the seventh-century tomb of Talha bin Obeid-Allah, one of the main opponents of Imam Ali’s accession to the Caliphate and thus a symbolic enemy of the Shia.

The following day in al Madai’in, Sunni gunmen fired two rockets at the tomb of Salman al-Farisi, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, whose shrine is revered by Shiites. Initial reports claimed that it had been entirely destroyed, but it later emerged that in fact damage was light.

On 27 February, in an effort to stem the proliferation of inaccurate reports, US military spokesman Major General Rick Lynch told journalists that 22 mosques were known to have been attacked of which six sustained serious damage. He highlighted the unreliability of information during this volatile period.

Occupying US forces have been accused of not doing enough to protect the cultural heritage of Iraq, and Alastair Northedge, professor of Islamic art at the Sorbonne, told The Art Newspaper that he believed US troops had once again occupied the top of the Malwiya, the spiral minaret of the great mosque of Caliph al Mutawakil, which last year sustained damage from rebel fire after being used by a US sniper team (March 2005, p7). He emphasised, however, that even from official sources, it is often very difficult to establish the facts of such situations.

Iran’s pledge of funding for the Golden Dome has not been universally welcomed. The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies, based at the London School of Oriental and African Studies, says Iran should concentrate on safeguarding its own cultural heritage, pointing to the ongoing reconstruction of the city of Bam for which financial aid has been sought from foreign countries. The organisation also stated numerous instances of important Iranian heritage sites that are in danger from industrial encroachment.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Iran takes lead in restoration of Samarra mosque'