an illustration of the outline of Iraq cracked and fragmented into pieces
Archiwiz / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Nation Building at Gunpoint

Can Samarra, a Sunni-majority city run by Shia militias, be a test case for fixing a broken Iraq?

SAMARRA, Iraq—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.

The cleric Moqtada al-Sadr dispatched the Saraya al-Salam, his widely feared militia once called the Mahdi Army but whose new name translates as the “Peace Brigades,” to secure Samarra in 2014, as ISIS forces bore down on the city. Sadr has unparalleled stature among Iraqi politicians because of his huge and enduring popular following—and because he has embraced a rhetoric of anti-sectarian nationalist unity, one that belies his militia’s record of sectarian killing during the country’s civil war, which ended in 2008.

“Peace Brigades” fighters leave Baghdad to head to Samarra in January 2016. (Karim Kadim / AP)

Sadr’s men played a major role five years ago in ensuring that Samarra did not fall to the terrorist group, and they have now undertaken the delicate task of trying to win the trust of skeptical Sunnis while reassuring Iraq’s Shia majority that they have the city under control.

The experiment in Samarra holds special significance for Iraq—and for would-be nation builders around the world. Since the end of the Cold War, there have been spectacular illustrations of how nations break apart, but no compelling examples of broken states coming back together. Should the burgeoning peace in Samarra be understood as a building block of an enduring new order, strong enough to undo the blood feuds in Iraq’s recent past, or as just one of many tactical alliances that will crumble at the first sign of real tension?

Iraq still carries the scars and baggage of state collapse and civil war, not least of which is the patchwork of militias that compete for authority with the central government. But its politicians and warlords say they understand that they all lose when they engage in sectarian feuds. Militants turned statesmen tout a new era of cooperation; they say the country has moved past the bitter violence of its civil war and the deadly years that followed the rise of the Islamic State.

Iraq today is a living test lab: Is this how functioning nations are built?

As Iraq wrested back control of territory lost to the Islamic State in 2014, it relied on Shia militias working alongside official security forces. Today those various militias wield authority in the mostly Sunni lands from the Syrian border through Anbar province and Mosul all the way to Iraqi Kurdistan; they rule alongside the national government, and sometimes in its place.

Out of all the places where Shia security forces are trying to engineer a new relationship with Sunni allies and citizens, Samarra offers the most direct assessment of whether forging a functional community out of what were once warring camps is possible. Although its residents are mostly Sunni Arabs, their tribes stretch across the nation and have a thoroughly cross-sectarian membership. And the city’s wealth has always stemmed in large part from the passage of Shia pilgrims headed to the Askari Shrine.

The other ingredient that makes Samarra a telling trial is the man who ultimately calls the shots here: Sadr. On the national stage, Sadr has denounced sectarianism and advocated a secular government for Iraq. Hailing from a family of prominent clerics, he campaigned in last year’s parliamentary elections on a platform of reform, in coalition with Communists—and his party won the most seats. Sadr claims that he has purged the Peace Brigades of thugs who committed sectarian crimes a decade ago. Samarra is his showcase; here, he is trying to prove that patching up a broken society is possible.

His forces have reduced major attacks in the city almost to zero, and have limited the activities of the Islamic State and other extremist groups, which have long had a following here. The Peace Brigades rule Samarra with an iron grip, and at Sadr’s orders they have followed a distinct blueprint to secure the historically restive Sunni city.

Sadrists have cultivated business and political alliances with local Sunni businessmen; opposed the kidnapping of rich Sunnis for ransom, a common practice of other Shia militias; and speak with the nationalist, anti-sectarian rhetoric of their leader. Those stances have helped distinguish them from most other Shia groups in charge of other Sunni hotbeds. On the surface, the Sadrists seem to have produced a viable new order.

Nation building at gunpoint creates a combustible mix, and nowhere are relations more precarious than in Samarra’s Old City, where until not long ago Sunni merchants did vigorous business with Shia pilgrims.

In an effort to restore some semblance of vibrancy to the area, Sadr’s militia has enlisted Sunni businessmen in plans to reopen restaurants and hotels around the Askari Shrine, which lies at the heart of the Old City and is a five-minute walk from the Malwiya minaret. But there have been plenty of losers, too, in the new order, including the owners of some of the small shops in the area, which is ringed with checkpoints and blast barriers. Some streets have been entirely emptied of residents and sealed with iron gates.

Sadr attends Friday prayers at a mosque near Najaf in 2015. (Alaa Al-Marjani / Reuters)

“It’s like living under a military occupation,” groused a shopkeeper, who gave his name only as Abdelrahman. His family store is stocked with electric appliances that have no takers. “Poverty leads people to ISIS—they will plant a bomb for $100,” he said, fingering a set of white prayer beads. “We support the forces of law, but how can they get the confidence of the people like this?”

Muhannad Azawi, who has spent most of his adult life fighting in Sadr’s militias and now serves as the Peace Brigades’ spokesman in Samarra, gave the shopkeeper a long handshake and a pat on the shoulder. “We’re working on it,” he said. We shared tea with a circle of idle merchants, but as soon as we were out of earshot, Azawi made clear to me that there are no plans to reopen the market or loosen his forces’ grip on this part of the city.

He pointed along the road, toward the house where Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, grew up. “ISIS didn’t come from outside this city—they came from here,” Azawi said. “ISIS is still here. And we haven’t totally uprooted them.”

Ali Majid Alawi is one of the chosen Sunnis who has thrived under the new order. He used to run a restaurant in the Old City and was one of the first to welcome the Sadrists in 2014. They rewarded him with a parcel of land and seed money for a new restaurant. Alawi controls the business and owns half of it. The Peace Brigades use the restaurant for official events and as an unofficial hangout. This type of arrangement has sputtered Samarra’s economy into slow motion.

Alawi is part of the city’s new elite, but he’s not afraid to criticize its shortcomings. He rattled off a list of failures to assembled guests at his restaurant, including several Peace Brigades fighters. “You can’t get a truckload of merchandise into town without paying a $100 bribe,” Alawi said, referring to checkpoints outside the city manned by other militias and the government. “A frightening number of people in Samarra say they would prefer the American forces to be in charge again.”

The difficult relationship many Sunnis in Samarra have with the Peace Brigades is perhaps best embodied by the Krayem tribe.

The Krayem are Sunni, and grew rich under the rule of Saddam Hussein, but are avowedly anti-extremist; they led their family militia, with about 1,000 fighters, into battle against al-Qaeda and then ISIS. They have fought alongside the Americans and, more recently, Sadr’s Peace Brigades.

Shalaan Krayem, one of the tribe’s leaders and a former parliamentarian, told me a year ago that he thought the Peace Brigades had exaggerated the threat from ISIS to justify their grip on Samarra, and to profit from their presence in the city. Since then, however, he has adopted a softer view. He now suspects that, despite their drawbacks, the Sadrists are the best guardians of his city.

“They have made Samarra into a prison. Don’t be deceived by their slogans; their words are in one valley and their actions in another,” Krayem told me recently. “But they are much better than they were a year ago, and we prefer them to the federal police or the army.”

Despite the nationalist and nonsectarian rhetoric, the fact remains that the most important decision makers in this Sunni city are Shia clerics who live a couple hundred miles to the south, in the shrine city of Najaf.

Shia Muslims visit the Askari Shrine. (Karim Kadim / AP)

Sadr is one of them; the others are the clerical authorities who control the administration of the Askari Shrine. They decide when it’s safe to allow more pilgrims to visit Samarra, and how much to pay local Sunni property owners if the shrine decides to buy up the dense surrounding neighborhood and transform it into a market, as Shia clerics have done in other Iraqi shrine cities. Local Sunnis are almost entirely shut out of the process.

“Our Sunni politicians are only interested in their own personal business,” Mahmoud Khalaf, a former Iraqi air-force pilot who has served as Samarra’s mayor since 2005, told me. He’s a Sunni politician himself, but the municipality has mostly symbolic power, so Khalaf feels like he’s exempt from his own critique. “The Shia politicians are not willing to invest in our city, because they don’t trust that it’s safe.”

There is a good reason, however, why Iraq’s political leaders don’t want to tinker with the status quo here. While politicians and analysts have for decades pointed to Kirkuk as a flashpoint that could send Iraq tumbling into an abyss, the real danger has lain in Samarra, which has none of Kirkuk’s oil or complex ethnic demographics, but whose religious symbolism turned out to be Iraq’s real tinderbox. Violence in this city, after all, sparked the apocalyptic sectarian civil war in 2006.

As state-building exercises go, Samarra’s record so far is inconclusive, but it suggests the limited possibilities for which Iraq might hope.

If a new nationalist arrangement is going to take shape in Iraq, it will grow from uncomfortable organic experiments like this one, under way in mixed-sect or Sunni areas under Shia tutelage. Success, for now, simply means a cessation of widespread violence. Whether mutual or not, minimal tolerance can evolve into active cooperation, and shared identity will be revealed after the next trial by fire that touches Iraq.

What has worked in Samarra has been this informal, evolving balance between fragmented groups that have limited authority but well-known chains of command. The city’s new stewards have stuck around long enough to build relationships while restraining their fighters. Local tribes have reached a modus vivendi with the Peace Brigades and the shrine administration, enough to get along, prevent violence, and even make a little money.

But so far, the promise hasn’t gone much further: The emergency seems to be over, but real state building remains a dream.