Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) struck the perimeter of one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines in Iraq in a mortar attack yesterday, the country’s ambassador to the United States confirmed Tuesday.
“They hit the outer perimeter of the shrine and some people were killed,” the ambassador, Lukman Faily, said in response to a question from TIME about Samarra’s al-Askari mosque, where a 2006 attack was a catalyst for nationwide sectarian civil war. U.S. and Iraqi officials are extremely worried that a successful ISIS attack on the shrine, commonly known as the Golden Dome mosque, could re-inflame sectarian rage.
Faily did not say whether the shrine’s famous golden dome, which was blown up by Sunni jihadists in 2006 and later rebuilt, was damaged as unconfirmed reports suggest. But he insisted that ISIS, which reportedly overran much of Samarra in mid-June, no longer holds territory within the city. “It was a hit-and-run situation,” he said.
The shrine itself is heavily guarded by Iraqi forces, along with foreign fighters who consider it a sacred duty to defend Iraq’s holy sites from Sunni vandals. One of those reportedly killed in fighting at the shrine last month, for instance, was Pakistani man studying in Iraq who volunteered for its defense. He is now memorialized as a Shi’ite martyr.
Six more people are reported to have been killed by Monday’s mortar attack.
Samarra is about 60 miles north of Baghdad and 30 miles south of Tikrit, the site of intense fighting between Iraqi government forces and ISIS fighters who seized the city, where former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was born, earlier this month.
Faily said that ISIS no longer controls central Tikrit, but said countless buildings, including homes and places of worship, had been booby-trapped and would take time to clear.
Speaking before an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Faily also said it is “likely” that Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will retain his job. He added: “Is it certain? Nothing is certain.”
Faily said Iraq’s purchase of Russian aircraft, amid complaints from Baghdad about slow delivery of American F-16s, isn’t a sign of a fraying alliance with Washington. “Our countries are forever tied together because of the lives we lost and the treasure we spent in the past decade in the fight against terrorism,” he said.
For more on the Golden Dome shrine and what its fate could mean for Iraq, click here.