Iraq weighs how much to return to 'normalcy'

SAMARRA, Iraq — The U.S. military on Tuesday handed over the last of its bases outside Samarra, a city billed as a reconciliation success story. Worries linger, though, that wartime remedies like barriers and checkpoints will encourage divisions and undermine hard-won security gains.

Nowhere is the split more apparent than in the half-mile passageway of blast walls leading to Samarra's famed Shiite Askariya shrine, once a flash point for sectarian slaughter. On one side of the walls are struggling Sunni shopkeepers. On the other are their traditional customers, Shiite pilgrims who for decades provided a steady stream of income for local merchants.

The shrine — ravaged in a February 2006 blast blamed on Sunni insurgents — represents the quandary facing military and civic authorities across Iraq: How much can the lockdown tactics be lifted to restore some sense of normalcy.

At the Samarra shrine, the issue pits security against economic viability. In Baghdad and other cities where some of the 15-foot blast walls have been pulled down, the neighborhoods that sat behind them have been deeply reordered by years of bloodshed between Sunnis who had power under Saddam Hussein and the majority Shiites who claimed the upper hand after the invasion.

Few mixed areas remain and many Sunnis feel pushed aside in the effort to protect Shiite neighborhoods and places of worship. Both U.S. and Iraqi officials say that economic growth remains one of the keys to long-term stability in Iraq, but also acknowledge that the walls and other security measures remain a significant obstacle.

"It is very hard for us, and we have suffered with this wall," said Abdullah Farr, 23, who runs a kitchen appliance store that sits a few blocks from the Askariya shrine, one of the main pilgrim sites for Shiites from both Iraq and Iran. "The government wants to protect the mosque. But what do they do for us? For our business?"

Many say Samarra city has been forever changed by the war — and then by the effort to keep the peace.

Today, with the steep decline in violence, the Shiite-dominated government has pointed to Samarra — and its peaceful streets — as an example of what is possible.