There’s only one way in and out of this predominantly Sunni Muslim city: through the checkpoints of the Saraya al-Salam, one of Iraq’s most fearsome Shia militias. Samarra gained notoriety in 2006 as ground zero of Iraq’s sectarian civil war, and more recently as the hometown of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.
In recent years, however, a remarkable calm has taken root here. The city’s restive tribes have put aside historic feuds. Security forces have foiled Islamic State terror plots while preventing revenge attacks against ISIS sympathizers. The Askari Shrine, one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites, has been restored, after a 2006 attack, and is attracting more pilgrims than ever. Tourists from all over Iraq snap selfies at the Malwiya Tower, an Abbasid minaret that resembles a tiered wedding cake and is one of Iraq’s most famous monuments.
A visitor is hard-pressed to reconcile today’s orderly Samarra with the war zone it has largely been since the American invasion in 2003. The current calm is the product of the city’s unique experiment in nation building, or rebuilding, Iraqi-style.