IN A BOLD BLOW to Iraqi hopes for peace, suspected Al Qaeda bombers toppled the towering minarets of Samarraâ€™s revered Shiite shrine on Wednesday, adding new provocation to old wounds a year after the mosqueâ€™s golden dome was destroyed.The attack stoked fears of a surge in violence between Muslim sects. Prime Minister Nouri Malikiâ€™s government rushed to contain Shiite wrath against Sunnis. It clamped a curfew on Baghdad and asked for US troop reinforcements in Samarra and for a heightened American military alert in the capital.
But sketchy reports of sectarian strife began to come in. Police told of at least four Sunni mosques in Baghdad and south of the capital attacked by arsonists and bombers, and of a smaller Shiite shrine bombed north of Baghdad.
King Abdullah, currently on a state visit to Hungary, swiftly condemned the â€œheinousâ€ attack.
â€œJordan stands by Iraq. This heinous crime extremely offended all Muslims,â€ the King said in a letter to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported.
â€œJordan condemns all killings and destruction targeting Iraqis and their holy shrines, and supports efforts to enhance Iraqâ€™s stability and fight terror.â€
He urged Iraqis to â€œexercise self-restraint, close ranks and strengthen their internal frontâ€.
Wednesdayâ€™s Samarra attack also threatened to deepen Iraqâ€™s political crisis, as the 30-member bloc of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr immediately suspended its participation in parliament in protest.
The golden dome bombing in February 2006, at one of Iraqi Shiismâ€™s holiest sites, unleashed a bloodbath of reprisals â€” of Shiite death-squad murders of Sunnis, and Sunni bombing attacks on Shiites. At least 34,000 civilians died in last yearâ€™s violence, the United Nations reported.
Wednesdayâ€™s stunning attack came in near-simultaneous explosions at about 9:00am, completely bringing down the two slender golden minarets, 100 feet tall, that had flanked the domeâ€™s ruins. No casualties were reported. How the attackers evaded the Askariya shrineâ€™s guard force, strengthened considerably after the 2006 bombing, was a mystery.
Maliki said policemen at the shrine were detained for questioning â€” 15 of them, according to a senior US military official. The prime minister also said an unspecified number of other suspects were arrested in Samarra and were being interrogated in connection with the shrine attack.
The Wednesday morning blasts shook the Tigris river-side city of Samarra, sending a cloud of dust billowing into the air, said Imad Nagi, a storeowner 100 yards from the shrine. â€œAfter the dust settled, I couldnâ€™t see the minarets any more. So, I closed the shop quickly and went home.â€ Nearby blacksmith shop owner Farouq Samaraie said, â€œI didnâ€™t expect there would be another explosion at Askariya Mosque because it was already attacked last year.â€ Resident Abdul-Khali Mohammad predicted violence in the capital: â€œThe Shiite groups now will seize this opportunity to kill Sunni families in Baghdad.â€ An indefinite curfew was immediately imposed on Samarra, and, as Iraqi army and police reinforcements and US troops poured in, the streets emptied by midafternoon, witnesses said.
A few hundred US soldiers had been stationed around Samarra but had left shrine security to Iraqi forces.
In Baghdad, the prime minister ordered an indefinite curfew, beginning at 6:00pm Wednesday, on vehicle traffic and large gatherings in the capital. Maliki, whose office said the curfew would be lifted Saturday, then travelled to Samarra, with US ground forces commander Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, and visited the mosque ruins.
An official close to the prime minister, citing intelligence reports, said Wednesdayâ€™s bombing was likely the work of Al Qaeda, whose gunmen have recently moved into Samarra from surrounding areas.
A US statement, from Ambassador Ryan Crocker and US Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, unequivocally blamed Al Qaeda, saying the terror group sought â€œto sow dissent and inflame sectarian strifeâ€. Such an attack by the Sunni extremist group Al Qaeda in Iraq, increasingly at odds with more nationalist Iraqi insurgents, might have been intended to provoke Shiite retaliation that would help reunite various Sunni elements.
Asked about the meeting in which Malikiâ€™s office said he asked Petraeus for US reinforcements in Samarra and a stepped-up alert here, US military spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Garver said only that the command was â€œobviously very concerned about this and our primary goal is to prevent any violence of the kind that broke out after the last bombing.â€Â Â
Last yearâ€™s surge in execution-style killings, largely blamed on Shiite factions, had begun to decline in Baghdad in February, at the start of a major US-Iraqi security push to pacify the city. But violence has been on the rise elsewhere in Iraq and the Baghdad numbers have begun to rise again.
On Wednesday, in what has become a routine report, Baghdad police said they found 25 handcuffed, blindfolded and bullet-riddled bodies of unidentified men in various locations in the capital, many with signs of torture.
The Maliki aide and other Iraqi officials spoke on condition of anonymity, either because of the sensitivity of the matter or because they were not authorised to deal with the media.
In a nationally televised address, Maliki said he had ordered security forces to bolster protection of religious shrines and mosques across Iraq. The Shiite prime minister also warned against reprisal sectarian attacks.
In Shiite southern Iraq, the reaction to Wednesdayâ€™s attack was swift. In Najaf, radical cleric Sadr called for a three-day mourning period and peaceful demonstrations to mark the minaretsâ€™ destruction. He criticised the government for not protecting the site, and said the US occupation is â€œthe only enemy of Iraqâ€ and â€œthatâ€™s why everyone must demand its departureâ€, or a timetable for its departure.
More than 3,000 Sadr loyalists staged a protest in Najaf, chanting, â€œNo, no to America!â€, â€œNo, no to Israel!â€ and â€œNo, no to sedition!â€ Later, in Baghdad, the 30-member Sadrist bloc in parliament issued a statement saying it would boycott the 275-seat house until the government takes â€œrealisticâ€ steps to rebuild the Askariya shrine.
The action by the Sadrists, whose support for Maliki has recently waned, is likely to weaken the Shiite-dominated government and delay adoption of a series of laws needed to build national reconciliation in Iraq.
Iraqâ€™s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a statement calling on â€œbelievers to exercise self-restraint and avoid any vengeful act that would target innocent people or the holy places of othersâ€.
In neighbouring Shiite Iran, which has been accused of funding and arming Shiite groups in Iraq, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blamed US forces for failing to prevent the mosque attack, and threatened to halt regional cooperation to stop Iraqâ€™s spiralling violence.
Last yearâ€™s destruction of the Askariya shrineâ€™s dome was also blamed on Sunni gunmen believed linked to Al Qaeda.
The mosque contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams â€” Ali Hadi, who died in 868, and his son Hassan Askari, who died in 874. Both are descendants of the Prophet Mohammad, and Shiites consider them to be among his successors.
The shrine also is near the place where the 12th imam, Mohammad Mahdi, disappeared. Mahdi, known as the â€œhidden imamâ€, was the son and grandson of the two imams buried in the Askariya shrine. Shiites believe he will return to earth to restore justice to humanity.
In other violence Wednesday, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a police station near the Iranian border, killing five Iraqi policemen and wounding 10, the townâ€™s mayor said. In the western city of Ramadi, a suicide bomber killed four policemen at a checkpoint, police said.
In northern Iraq, gunmen blew up part of a bridge in the countryâ€™s fourth bridge attack in as many days, police said.
The bombing targeted the Zikaytoon overpass southwest of Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad. The attackers planted explosives under the bridge, and the blast went off around 6:00am, said police Brig. Sarhat Qader. No one was injured, Qader said.
The state-owned Sabah newspaper reported its editor-in-chief, Flayeh Wadi Mijdab, had been kidnapped.
Unknown gunmen ambushed Mijdab in eastern Baghdad on Wednesday morning as he was heading to work, police said.
His 25-year-old son and driver were left behind, police added.