On Dec. 18, 2008, Jim Garamone of the American Forces Press Service wrote, “The bombs that severely damaged the Golden Mosque in this city on the Tigris River almost destroyed the foundations of the nation, but the Golden Mosque is rising again, just like Iraq.”
Jim Garamone and I were traveling with ADM Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during one of his battlefield circulation tours, at the time. As the Chairman’s Executive Assistant, I had the distinct privilege of accompanying him all over the world. The places I went and the things I saw left an indelible mark in my memory. This place was no exception.
The Golden Mosque is a Holy Shi’a Shrine in the city of Samarra on the Tigris River in Salahuddin province.
In February 2006, the Golden Dome of the Mosque was destroyed in a bombing perpetrated by the affiliates of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi’s brutal tactics were intended to drive a wedge between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in Iraq and the attack on this holy site precipitated a near civil war leaving scores of dead behind and the city of Samarra in ruins.
General Stan McChrystal, Commander of Joint Special Operations Command, tells the story of the hunt for and eventual killing of Zarqawi in June 2006, by U.S. Special Forces in his book, My Share of the Task. Zarqawi was public enemy number one and for good reason. With his downfall and the simultaneous Sunni Awakening in neighboring Al-Anbar Province, the reconstruction of Samarra and the Golden Mosque was undertaken.
Realizing the importance of this place and the special role that U.S. Forces played in the restoration of the rule of law which enabled reconstruction, ADM Mullen decided to pay a visit to Samarra, this time with 60 Minutes and reporter David Martin and his cameraman in tow.
We arrived that morning in a Mine Resistant Ambush Penetrant (MRAP) vehicle on the outskirts of town and were escorted by Major General Bob Caslen, Commander of the 25th Infantry Division charged with the responsibility for security in the region. It was a long walk up a straight road to the Golden Mosque and ADM Mullen relished to opportunity to see the city and speak to some of the Iraqi inhabitants about their lives in this war ravaged region. As we walked up the street in full body armor and Kevlar helmets, ADM Mullen felt a little awkward when compared to the residents of Samarra staring at us from both sides of the street. It was an unfortunate necessity to ensure the safety of the senior U.S. military officer on active duty.
Our plan was to walk through the market in Samarra, in broad daylight, in order to take in the sense of the reconstruction. As I looked down the side streets at several intersections we passed, I could see the fields of fire and incredible damage that the war had inflicted on this little town. That said, the market section was teeming with merchants and locals alike. In a word, it was “vibrant.” Shops were full of merchandise–clothing, kids toys, spices, poultry, meat, eggs–and the smells of street vendors cooking foodstuffs of all variety filled the air. Despite the remnants of war, to me, it seemed that the city was very much alive and well.
With my friend John Tigmo, NCIS agent and senior member of ADM Mullen’s security detail at his side, the Chairman felt unconstrained and undeterred when he stopped to talk with normal Iraqis in the street. Surrounded by soldiers, he ordered them to stand aside as he went over to talk with some Iraqi children. A father with his son came over to thank Admiral Mullen. I don’t think he had any idea who the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was, but it was clear he was someone important and ultimately a party to the restoration of order in this city. I remember one man, wearing a long black dishdasha who worked his way in to talk to AMD Mullen through his interpreter. This man was a merchant and he was not shy. He unloaded on the Chairman about the lack of reliable electricity, poor city services and unhealthy water and sewage systems near his shop. The Chairman listened carefully to the complaints and said, “Do you know this man? He is Major General Bob Caslen and he is in charge of this region.” He then asked MG Caslen to give the merchant his contact information. Then he asked the merchant for his name. The man wrote it down on a piece of paper and handed it to the Chairman. ADM Mullen said, “I will see Prime Minister Maliki tonight in Bagdad and I will tell him of our conversation and give him your name.” As always, the Chairman was true to his word.
As we continued our walk up the street, someone said, “The Mayor may come out to receive you as we get closer to the Golden Mosque.” We were told that the Mayor was a former Iraqi Air Force pilot, in the Sadaam Hussein-era, who left the service to run for mayor. He was forced to evacuate after the bombing and the ensuing civil unrest, but returned to regain the confidence of the people and be reelected as Mayor of Samarra. Sure enough, after a few more paces up the street, Mayor Mahmood Khalef Ahmed appeared, looking very dapper in a fitted blue suit, blue tie and characteristic aviator sun glasses. It had to be over a hundred degrees outside and we were drenched but the mayor wasn’t even breaking a sweat. He accompanied the Chairman the rest of the way up the street to the Mosque and regaled him with stories of the war and the reconstruction of Samarra. The mayor had high hopes for his city and it showed in his enthusiasm. He looked forward to the day when thousands of pilgrims would return to Samarra to appreciate the Golden Mosque as we had.
As we approached the Golden Mosque, I was stunned by its beauty. As non-Muslims, we were not allowed inside and instead, viewed the reconstruction from the roof of an abandoned apartment building next door. While on the roof, we heard the story of the Twelfth or “hidden” Imam. It was in this place where Imam al-Mahdi went into concealment, known as the Minor Occultation in Islam. Twelver Shi’a Muslims believe that one day, the Mahdi will re-emerge with Isa or Jesus Christ to complete their mission of bringing peace to the world. Wow, that was a powerful story… so powerful that while listening, the 60 Minutes cameraman focused only on Admiral Mullen, MG Caslen and David Martin and forgot to pan around to get the Golden Dome in the background. This created a little consternation with the producer reviewing the raw footage on the way home, but somehow 60 Minutes recovered the image as the camera’s digital field of view was much wider than that seen through the lens of the videographer.
That was six years ago and fortunately, the images in my mind and those that you see in this Blog were preserved by the venerable Combat Cameraman, Petty Officer First Class Chad McNeely, always with and out front of Chairman Mullen on his many trips overseas.
Now fast forward to the present day. As I watch the events unfold on the ground in Iraq I harken back to the many visits I made to this country and Jim Garamone’s opening sentence of his byline on 18 December 2006: “…the Golden Mosque is rising again, just like Iraq.”
The USS GEORGE H.W. BUSH Strike Group was positioned forward and ready at the time that this crisis unfolded. Her presence gives the President and our national leaders options, but as we have heard recounted time and again on the news, the best option is for a political solution by Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish leaders on the ground in Iraq.