SAMARRA, Iraq (AP) — A large explosion destroyed the golden dome of one of Iraq’s most famous Shiite shrines Wednesday, spawning mass protests and triggering reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques. It was the third major attack against Shiite targets this week and threatened to enflame sectarian tensions.
Shiite leaders called for calm, but at least five Sunni mosques in the capital and two in Basra were attacked. About 500 Iraqi soldiers were sent to Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad to prevent clashes between Shiites and Sunnis, army Capt. Jassim al-Wahash said.
No group claimed responsibility for the early morning attack on the Askariya shrine in this city 60 miles north of Baghdad, but suspicion fell on Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
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The Interior Ministry said four men, one wearing a military uniform and three in black, entered the mosque early Wednesday and detonated two bombs, one of which collapsed the dome into a crumbly mess and damaged part of the northern wall of the shrine.
Police believed an unknown number of people may have been buried under the debris after the 6:55 a.m. explosion. The shrine contains the tombs of two revered Shiite imams, both descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.
In Baghdad, National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie blamed religious zealots such as the al-Qaida terror network, telling Al-Arabiya television that the attack was an attempt “to pull Iraq toward civil war.”
The country’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, sent instructions to his followers forbidding attacks on Sunni mosques, especially the major ones in Baghdad. He called for seven days of mourning, his aides said.
The Sunni Endowment, a government organization that cares for Sunni mosques and shrines, condemned the blast and said it was sending a delegation to Samarra to investigate.
Shiite leaders in surrounding countries, including Iran’s most influential cleric body, the Qom Shiite Seminary, were also quick to respond.
“Ayatollahs in Qom have condemned the explosion and announced one day of public mourning,” Hashem Hosseini, head of the seminary, told the state-run television.
Following the blast, U.S. and Iraqi forces in Samarra surrounded the shrine and searched houses in the area. Five police officers responsible for protecting the mosque were taken into custody, said Col. Bashar Abdullah, chief of police commandoes.
Large protests erupted in Shiite parts of Baghdad and in cities throughout the Shiite heartland to the south.
Residents of Najaf closed their shops and gathered in the city’s 1920 Revolution Square for a demonstration. In Baghdad’s Sadr City, thousands of Shiites, some brandishing Kalashnikov rifles, marched through the streets shouting anti-American slogans.
All mosques in the Shiite city of Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad began broadcasting “Allahu akbar,” or “God is Great” from loudspeakers and urged people to turn out in the streets. All markets, shops and stores closed, police Maj. Muhammad Ali said.
About 3,000 people marched the Shiite city of Kut, chanting anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans and burning U.S. and Israeli flags. Crowds hurled stones at two Sunni mosques in Basra.
In the capital, the biggest attack against a Sunni mosque occurred in the Baladiyat area of eastern Baghdad, where about 40 Shiite militiamen sprayed the building with automatic fire. One street vendor was killed in another mosque attack.
Radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr cut short a visit to Lebanon and for Syria, where he was expected to travel back to Iraq, Lebanese officials said.
In Samarra, demonstrators gathered near the shrine, waving Iraqi flags, Shiite religious banners and copies of the Muslim holy book, Quran.
“This criminal act aims at igniting civil strife,” said Mahmoud al-Samarie, a 28-year-old builder who was among the crowd in Samarra. “We demand an investigation so that the criminals who did this be punished. If the government fails to do so, then we will take up arms and chase the people behind this attack.”
Religious leaders at other mosques and shrines throughout the city denounced the attack in statements read over loudspeakers.
President Jalal Talabani condemned the attack and called for restraint, saying the attack was designed to sabotage talks on a government of national unity following the Dec. 15 parliamentary election.
Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari urged all Iraqis to condemn the attack and urged both Muslim and Christian leaders abroad “to redouble their efforts to help the Iraqi government stop these saboteurs.”
The shrine attack followed a devastating car bomb late Tuesday in a Shiite corner of Baghdad, killing 22 people, according to police. The day before, 12 died in a suicide attack on a bus in the capital’s heavily Shiite district of Kazimiyah.
Tradition says the Askariya shrine, which draws Shiite pilgrims from throughout the Islamic world, is near the place where the last of the 12 Shiite imams, Mohammed al-Mahdi, disappeared. Al-Mahdi, known as the “hidden imam,” was the son and grandson of the two imams buried in the Askariya shrine.
Shiites believe he is still alive and will return to restore justice to humanity. An attack at such an important religious shrine would constitute a grave assault on Shiite Islam at a time of rising sectarian tensions in Iraq. The shrine contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams, Ali al-Hadi, who died in 868 A.D., and his son Hassan al-Askari, who died in 874 A.D. and was the father of the hidden imam.
The golden dome was completed in 1905.
In other violence Wednesday, a judge was seriously injured and four of his bodyguards killed when unidentified gunmen fired at his car on the outskirts of Muqdadiyah, a town about 60 miles north of Baghdad, police said.
In Baqouba, about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, two police officers were killed in a drive-by shooting Wednesday morning.
A roadside bomb exploded near a primary school in a mostly Shiite area near Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, killing two boys and injuring four others, police said.
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