Security barriers coming down in a revitalized Samarra
March 2, 2011
JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq -- Two days before the fifth anniversary of the bombing of Al Askari "Golden" Mosque, the security barriers protecting one of the holiest Shia shrines in Iraq came down.
"This is a great day for Samarra, and a great day for all of Iraq," said Lt. Col. Andy Preston, commander, Task Force 2-11, 2nd Battalion, 11th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd Advise and Assist Brigade, 25th Infantry Division.
"I'm happy for the citizens of Samarra, who will finally see their city restored," said Preston.
Following the bombing of the Al Askari Mosque Feb. 22, 2006, U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces implemented enhanced security measures to protect the mosque and the Shia pilgrims who visit each year.
U.S. forces, working with Iraqi Security Forces, blockaded large portions of the city with "T-walls," tall expediently emplaced concrete barriers that have become a common site across Iraq.
After Iraqis rebuilt the mosque, the T-walls remained, blocking pilgrims from the once vibrant marketplaces which colored the streets leading to the holy site.
Iraqi Security Forces required visitors to be escorted through blockaded T-wall channels to and from the mosque, a process which drastically impaired the tourism-based economy of Samarra.
"We have been working so hard on this project for so long, it is hard to believe it is finally happening," said Lt. Col. Ghayath, director of the Samarra Joint Coordination Center, a site designed to synchronize the security efforts of U.S. forces, Iraqi Army, Iraqi Police, Federal Police and the Sons of Iraq.
"The people of Samarra wanted this for a very long time, and the security forces made it possible," said Ghayath, who serves as the primary liaison between U.S. forces and the Samarra Operations Center.
The Samarra Operations Center, the command that oversees all Iraqi Security Forces in Samarra and much of southern Salah ad Din, developed the plan to leave T-walls around the mosque in place until a new permanent protective structure is built, said Ghayath.
ISF will maintain the re-established security in Samarra using additional police, security cameras, X-ray machines and better control of the site, he said.
Although the combined planning team primarily focused on security for pilgrims, local citizens and the mosque, other issues played an important role.
"One of the biggest problems we faced in Samarra was the lack of available employment," Preston said. "No matter where you are in the world, people with no money and no prospects are more likely to turn to crime and violence than those who have the ability to make a way for themselves legitimately. Re-opening these markets by taking down the T-walls will provide that legitimate opportunity."
Two battalion commanders who preceded Preston worked alongside the leadership of Samarra through partnered efforts aimed at repairing damaged sections of the city and providing small business grants to shopkeepers to help prepare their stores for the day when the T-walls would come down.
"I wish I could see the faces of (Lt. Col.) Sam Whitehurst and (Lt. Col.) Eric Timmerman when they hear the news," Preston said of the commanders of the last two U.S. units in Samarra, who are both personal friends of Preston. "I know that they truly cared about the people of Samarra and that they would love to be able to celebrate with their old friends."
Command Sgt. Maj. Berk Parsons, senior enlisted leader of Task Force 2-11, conveyed the significance of the T-wall removal as an indication of progress in Samarra in terms of security.
"The city of Samarra holds a significant place in the history of Iraq," he said. "Unfortunately, what most know about the city's role is its contemporary history, specifically concerning its connection to the sectarian violence."
"The progress of the Samarra government and the Iraqi Security Forces set the conditions which allow the city to begin its return to its former prestige," Parsons said. "The removal of the T-walls is a tangible symbol and a phenomenal progression towards the city's restoration."