BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government plans to establish a military unit to safeguard efforts in Samarra to rebuild one of Shiite Islam's most important shrines, a move criticized by Sunni Arabs as provocative and by some U.S. officials here as ill-conceived.
The Samarra Brigade -- or the Brigade of the Two Saints, as it has been nicknamed -- was the idea of Shiite lawmakers hoping to hasten the reconstruction of the Golden Mosque, which was blown up last February in an attack that served as a tipping point in Iraq's burgeoning civil war.
The mission of the proposed brigade, comprising Iraqi soldiers, police officers and possibly U.S. advisors, would be to protect the treacherous 60-mile stretch from the capital north to Samarra so that construction materials, personnel and pilgrims could safely reach the shrine, which houses the remains of two of the 12 most important Shiite saints. Shiite leaders say rebuilding the shrine will help heal Iraq's sectarian wounds.
"This treatment will be a cure for the situation of Samarra and the whole of Iraq," said Ammar Tuma, a Shiite lawmaker advocating the creation of the brigade. "The rebuilding will decrease the sectarian tensions."
But a U.S. official close to the discussions said American military commanders were doubtful that a new brigade of inexperienced troops and commanders, with unproven loyalties and commitment, would be able to successfully carry out such a mission without becoming targets.
"You know who's just sitting back and laughing at this? Al Qaeda," said the senior American advisor to the Defense Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the sensitive topic.
"They'll be sitting ducks," he said of the security forces, who would staff occasional checkpoints along the desolate, war-ravaged stretch of Sunni-dominated territory.
U.S. and Iraqi officials emphasized that the unit, which could include as many as 3,500 soldiers and police officers, was still in the planning stages.
But the concept has raised eyebrows among some Sunni officials, who fear that a Shiite-dominated security force will serve as a provocation in a city and region that are predominantly Sunni.
"The armed forces should not be concerned about how to protect a shrine but all the people," said Harith Obeidi, a Sunni lawmaker. "I believe that such a unit is very provocative and it will create instability because it is based on untruths."
U.S. officials said they were sensitive to such allegations and were monitoring the sectarian composition of the unit. For now, they are concerned with more basic issues, such as the feasibility of such a plan.
U.S. military officials worry that any small units of Iraqi and American forces deployed along the road would be vulnerable to attacks.
Finding troops for such a brigade would be difficult, they say. The Iraqi army is stretched thin, and the Baghdad security plan will take 10,000 troops -- about three brigades -- from the north and south to the capital, further diminishing the number of available forces.
Another option is to recruit a new brigade, which would take about nine months.
The plan to guard the road to Samarra and secure the workers rebuilding the shattered mosque has been debated for months since the United Nations started negotiating with Iraqi officials about funding the project. The U.N. has agreed to help, but money means little if architects and materials aren't able to reach the city.
Shiite politicians, clerics and commanders in the Interior Ministry have thrown their weight behind the Samarra Brigade idea.
Some critics said the attention given to the shrine's reconstruction was a way to divert criticism over the government's widespread failure to restore security, electricity and public services.
But defenders of the proposal say rebuilding the mosque is an important priority that would lower tensions between the two Islamic sects.
"It's not a Shiite brigade," said Tuma, the Shiite lawmaker. "This is a brigade for the whole of Iraq."
In Samarra, residents worry that the reconstruction might bring more grief. An increase in troops and public attention can only mean more danger for ordinary Iraqis, they say.
"I will close my shop during any reconstruction," said Mohammed Naif, who sells clothes from one of many shops near the mosque. "Reconstruction means keeping 700 families without income."
Obeidi, the Sunni lawmaker, said it was wrong to divert considerable resources to the rebuilding of a shrine that housed the remains of people who died more than 1,000 years ago when so many Iraqis were suffering today.
"The protection should be for the living and not for the dead," he said.
A special correspondent in Samarra contributed to this report.