The al-Askari shrine in Samarra
SAMARRA, Iraq (AP) — The al-Askari shrine in the Iraqi city of Samarra is surrounded by thousands of Shiite militiamen in mismatched uniforms, many of them awaiting transport to the nearby front lines of the war against the Islamic State group.
For months, they have fended off attacks by the extremists and now they are on the offensive in Tikrit to the north, but their presence has alarmed Samarra’s mainly Sunni residents, who fear both sides of the increasingly sectarian conflict.
The golden-domed shrine is among the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, and pilgrims from neighboring Iran continue to flock there despite the fighting. In 2006, Sunni extremists bombed the site, sparking a wave of sectarian bloodletting across the country that killed tens of thousands of people.
As the Islamic State group swept across Iraq last summer, Shiite militiamen heeding a call from the country’s top cleric flooded into Samarra to defend the shrine and halted the militants’ advance 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad. Today, the area around the shrine is festooned with militia banners and portraits of Iraqi and Iranian Shiite clerics.
But just across the city there is a conspicuous lack of security forces, and while traffic flows and shops are open during the day, residents say they are walking on eggshells…