SAMARRA, Iraq (AP) -- A large explosion heavily damaged the golden dome of one of Iraq's most famous Shi'i shrines Wednesday, spawning mass protests and triggering reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques. It was the third major attack against Shi'i targets this week and threatened to stoke sectarian tensions.
Shi'i leaders called for calm, but militants attacked Sunni mosques and a gunfight broke out between Shi'i militiamen and guards at the offices of a Sunni political party in Basra. About 500 soldiers were sent to Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad to prevent clashes between Shi'is and Sunnis, Army Capt. Jassim al-Wahash said.
A leading Sunni politician, Tariq al-Hashimi, said 29 Sunni mosques had been attacked nationwide. He urged clerics and politicians to calm the situation "before it spins out of control."
A government statement said "several suspects" had been detained and some of them "might have had been involved in carrying out the crime."
No group claimed responsibility for the 6:55 a.m. attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad. The shrine contains the tombs of two revered Shi'i imams, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.
The Interior Ministry said four men, one wearing a military uniform and three clad in black, entered the mosque and detonated two bombs, one of which collapsed the dome into a crumbly mess and damaged part of the shrine's northern wall.
Police said late Wednesday afternoon no casualties had been found.
U.S. and Iraqi forces in Samarra surrounded the shrine and searched nearby houses. Five police officers responsible for protecting the mosque were taken into custody, said Col. Bashar Abdullah, chief of police commandoes.
Demonstrators then gathered near the shrine, waving Iraqi flags, Shi'i religious banners and copies of the Muslim holy book, the Quran.
"This criminal act aims at igniting civil strife," said Mahmoud al-Samara'i, a 28-year-old builder. "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.
In Baghdad, National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubai'ie blamed religious zealots, telling Al-Arabiya television the attack was an attempt "to pull Iraq toward civil war."
The country's most revered Shi'i 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.
Shi'i leaders in surrounding countries, including Iran's most influential cleric body, the Qom Shi'i Seminary, also responded quickly.
"Ayatollahs in Qom have condemned the explosion and announced one day of public mourning," Hashem Hossaini, head of the seminary, told state-run television.
Large protests erupted in Shi'i parts of Baghdad and in cities throughout the Shi'i heartland to the south.
In Basra, Shi'i militants traded rifle and rocket-propelled grenade fire with guards at the office of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party. Smoke billowed from the building.
Merchants in the holy city of Najaf closed their shops, and about 1,000 people marched through the streets waving Iraqi flags and shouting religious slogans.
In Baghdad's Sadr City, thousands of Shi'is, some brandishing Kalashnikov rifles, marched through the streets shouting anti-American slogans.
All mosques in the Shi'i city of Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, began broadcasting "Allahu akbar!" or "God is Greater!" 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 in the Shi'i city of Kut, chanting anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans and burning those nations' 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, where about 40 Shi'i militiamen sprayed the building with automatic fire. One street vendor was killed in another mosque attack.
Iraqi Shi'i cleric Muqtada al-Sadr cut short a visit to Lebanon and left by road for Syria, where he was expected to travel back to Iraq, Lebanese officials said.
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-Ja'afari 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 Shi'i 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 Shi'i district of Al-Kadhimiyah.
Tradition says the Askariya shrine, which draws Shi'i pilgrims from throughout the Islamic world, is near the place where the last of the 12 Shi'i 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.
Shi'is 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 Shi'i 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.
Samarra has been among the most difficult cities to pacify in the Sunni heartland. In 2004, the city fell under the control of extremists, and al-Qaeda flags could be seen flying over some buildings in the city. U.S. forces regained control but the city remains tense.
In April, an explosion blew away part of a wall on top of another Samarra landmark, the spiral minaret from a 9th-century mosque. Witnesses said two men climbed the 170-foot-tall minaret, then returned to the ground before the blast scattered rubble on the stairs that spiral up the outside of the structure.
Shi'i Leader Cites U.S. in Shrine Blast
By Associated Press
February 22, 2006, 9:00 AM EST
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A Shi'i political leader said Wednesday that U.S. Zalmay Khalilzad shares some of the responsibility for the bombing of a major Shi'i shrine because of his criticism of Shi'i-led security forces
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, cited Khalilzad's statement at a press conference Monday that America would not continue to support institutions run by sectarian groups with links to armed militias.
"For sure, the statements made by the ambassador were not made in a responsible way and he did not behave like an ambassador," al-Hakim told reporters. "These statements were the reason for more pressure and gave green lights to (perpetrators). And, therefore, he shares in part of the responsibility."
Khalilzad has urged the Iraqis to form a unity government in which nonsectarian figures control the ministries of Defense, which runs the army, and Interior, which is responsible for the police.
The current Interior Minister Bayan Jabr is a member of al-Hakim's party. His commandos have been accused by Sunni Arabs of widespread human rights abuses against Sunni civilians.