Blast hits key Iraq Shia shrine

1153.jpgThe two minarets of the al-Askari shrine in Iraq, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam, have been destroyed by two explosions.According to witnesses the minarets collapsed completely after being hit by bomb blasts at around 0900 (0500 GMT).The shrine houses one of two tombs in Samarra for revered Shia imams.

The 2006 bombing of the shrine’s dome is widely believed to have set off a continuing spiral of sectarian violence in which many thousands have died.

The BBC’s Jim Muir in Baghdad says there are obvious fears this latest attack might give it yet further impetus.

The head of the Shia endowment foundation said the minarets had been blown up by “extremists”.

Graphic showing surge in violence after 2006 attack

“It is a terrorist attack aimed at sparking sectarian violence,” Sheikh Saleh al-Haidari told the AFP news agency.

Iraq’s most prominent Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, condemned the attack as a “heinous crime” and urged people “not to follow the path of sectarianism”, his office said.

Appeal for calm

Almost immediately after the explosions, a curfew was imposed on Samarra as Iraqi security forces and US troops rushed to the area.

Meanwhile, police in the shrine’s compound reportedly fired into the air to keep away angry Shia demonstrating outside.

A team of explosives experts from the Iraqi police was also sent to the shrine to ascertain the cause of the blasts.

In the capital, Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki held emergency meetings with US and Iraqi security chiefs, as well as with the US ambassador.

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