Samarra attack ‘offending to all Muslims’ — King

1160.jpgIN A BOLD BLOW to Iraqi hopes for peace, suspected Al Qaeda bombers toppled the towering minarets of Samarra’s revered Shiite shrine on Wednesday, adding new provocation to old wounds a year after the mosque’s golden dome was destroyed.The attack stoked fears of a surge in violence between Muslim sects. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’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 “heinous” attack.

“Jordan stands by Iraq. This heinous crime extremely offended all Muslims,” the King said in a letter to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported.

“Jordan condemns all killings and destruction targeting Iraqis and their holy shrines, and supports efforts to enhance Iraq’s stability and fight terror.”

He urged Iraqis to “exercise self-restraint, close ranks and strengthen their internal front”.

Wednesday’s Samarra attack also threatened to deepen Iraq’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 Shiism’s holiest sites, unleashed a bloodbath of reprisals — of Shiite death-squad murders of Sunnis, and Sunni bombing attacks on Shiites. At least 34,000 civilians died in last year’s violence, the United Nations reported.

Wednesday’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 dome’s ruins. No casualties were reported. How the attackers evaded the Askariya shrine’s guard force, strengthened considerably after the 2006 bombing, was a mystery.

Maliki said policemen at the shrine were detained for questioning — 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. “After the dust settled, I couldn’t see the minarets any more. So, I closed the shop quickly and went home.” Nearby blacksmith shop owner Farouq Samaraie said, “I didn’t expect there would be another explosion at Askariya Mosque because it was already attacked last year.” Resident Abdul-Khali Mohammad predicted violence in the capital: “The Shiite groups now will seize this opportunity to kill Sunni families in Baghdad.” 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 Wednesday’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 “to sow dissent and inflame sectarian strife”. 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 Maliki’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 “obviously very concerned about this and our primary goal is to prevent any violence of the kind that broke out after the last bombing.”  

Last year’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 Wednesday’s attack was swift. In Najaf, radical cleric Sadr called for a three-day mourning period and peaceful demonstrations to mark the minarets’ destruction. He criticised the government for not protecting the site, and said the US occupation is “the only enemy of Iraq” and “that’s why everyone must demand its departure”, or a timetable for its departure.

More than 3,000 Sadr loyalists staged a protest in Najaf, chanting, “No, no to America!”, “No, no to Israel!” and “No, no to sedition!” 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 “realistic” 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.

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a statement calling on “believers to exercise self-restraint and avoid any vengeful act that would target innocent people or the holy places of others”.

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 Iraq’s spiralling violence.

Last year’s destruction of the Askariya shrine’s dome was also blamed on Sunni gunmen believed linked to Al Qaeda.

The mosque contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams — 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 “hidden imam”, 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 town’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 country’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.

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