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Conflict erupts over properties surrounding Samarra shrine

Owners of land adjacent to a holy shrine in Samarra, Iraq, are threatening legal action against the shrine's administrators, who allegedly are maneuvering to buy the properties on the cheap.
People visit the Shi'ite Imam al-Askari shrine in Samarra, February 3, 2016. Picture taken February 3, 2016. To match story MIDEAST-CRISIS/IRAQ-SAMARRA   REUTERS/Ahmed Saad - GF10000309281

Property owners around the Holy Shrine of Askarian Imams in Samarra, Iraq, are being pressured to sell their land below market value, according to Salahuddin Provincial Council Chairman Ahmad al-Krayem.

In a Dec. 29 meeting with property owners, Krayem accused the shrine administration of blocking the areas surrounding the shrine and preventing landowners from investing in their properties in order to pressure them into selling at cheap prices. He said the administration, citing security concerns, is using checkpoints to limit access to the area.

Krayem considers the authorities' actions an effort to systematically displace the people of the surrounding areas. The people, however, are fighting back, he said.

“The landowners have agreed to take the necessary legal measures to recuperate their properties," Krayem said at the meeting, adding that "the Salahuddin Governorate Provincial Council will file a complaint to this effect.” Krayem said, “The owners of these properties were among the richest families of Samarra. Today, they are the poorest in the city." He stressed that the value of the properties surrounding the shrine is estimated at billions of dinars, but because access is restricted, the administration is able to squeeze landowners to sell for cheaper prices.

He criticized the different pricing between Samarra and other Shiite cities that are homes to other holy shrines. “Why is a square meter of land of the real estate surrounding the Holy Shrine of Askarian Imams selling for only 1 million dinars ($840), while it ranges between 10 [million] and 15 million dinars ($8,396 to $12,594) per square meter in the lands near the shrines in Karbala and Najaf?” (One square meter equals 10.76 square feet.)

The Askarian Authority is seen as the legal supervisor managing the affairs of the shrines and is part of the Shiite Endowment. The authority’s directors are appointed with the support of the highest-level Shiite authority, or marjaa, Ali al-Sistani.

The Askarian Authority had been under the administration of the Sunni Endowment, as the shrines lie in a predominantly Sunni area. But after the shrine's 2006 bombing by Sunni militants, which triggered a sectarian war in Iraq, the Shiite Endowment took over management.

The properties surrounding the shrine were used as hotels, supermarkets and other businesses that were lucrative because of the large number of tourists. But since the 2006 incident, the businesses haven't been allowed to operate because of security concerns.

Since then, the authority has become central in the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites in Samarra and in the Salahuddin governorate in general. This is due to the huge proceeds and income the authority receives from the shrine’s endowments and religious tourism.

Sheikh Sattar al-Morshedi, known for his moderate positions toward Sunnis, currently heads the Askarian Authority. Morshedi remained silent on Krayem’s statements to keep from increasing tension, but this didn't prevent other Shiite parties associated with the authority from escalating their tone.

Maitham al-Zaidi, commander of al-Abbas Combat Division, which is mostly stationed in the city of Samarra and charged with protecting the shrine, said Krayem’s statements are false. The division also has troops in other areas in Salahuddin, such as the cities of Balad and Dujail.

In a phone call with Krayem, Zaidi was stern and rebuked him for his accusations. He also threatened to take legal action against Krayem for what he called “great confusion and for slandering the Askarian Authority,” according to an anonymous source close to the division cited by Mawazin News.

Al-Abbas Combat Division is known for being close to Sistani and for having previously operated along with Sunni volunteers, Kurdish peshmerga forces and US-led coalition forces during the war on the Islamic State (IS).

The division, however, keeps its distance from the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), which includes many Shiite factions close to Iran. During its military activities, the division took no aggressive stances against Sunnis in the liberated areas, as some Shiite PMU factions did.

A source in the Askarian Authority who refused to be named told Al-Monitor that the authority hasn't pressured any of the landowners to sell their properties. The source stressed that the authority is gradually acquiring some properties, as finances permit, to expand the shrine premises and provide the necessary services to Iraqi and foreign pilgrims — millions of whom visit on several religious occasions each year.

The source said the authority doesn't oversee land appraisals, which are done by experts based on market prices.

Commenting on Krayem’s statements about the difference in pricing in Karbala and Najaf, the source said the economic situation in Samarra isn't comparable to that of Najaf and Karbala. He explained that the latter two holy cities receive more pilgrims and major projects in their shrine areas, which affects real estate prices. Also, the population of each city is much bigger than that of Samarra and there has always been a price difference, even before the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, he added.

In a statement to Al-Monitor, Salahuddin Dep. Gov. Sheikh Ammar Hekmat al-Baldawi called for settling the issue in accordance with the law instead of making media statements that only stir tension among citizens.

Krayem maintains good relations with PMU Deputy Chairman Abu Mahdi al-Mohandas, who is close to Iran and on the US list of terrorists.

Mohandas and the combat division's Zaidi have been at odds for a long time over Zaidi’s independent positions and for distancing himself from the factions close to Iran. The recent escalation between Krayem and Zaidi might come within the context of the conflict within PMU.

Finally, it seems that the developments in Samarra are not merely Shiite claims for the real estate surrounding the shrines as much as they are part of political parties' struggles to control and dominate this city, which is thought to be a strategic location north of Baghdad.

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