- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 14, 2007

BAGHDAD — In a bold blow to Iraqi hopes for peace, bombers toppled the towering minarets of Samarra’s revered Shi’ite shrine yesterday, adding new provocation to old wounds a year after the mosque’s golden dome was destroyed. Al Qaeda is suspected of carrying out the attack.

The attack stoked fears of a new surge in violence between Muslim sects.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government rushed to contain Shi’ite wrath against Sunnis: It clamped a curfew on Baghdad and asked for U.S. troop reinforcements in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, 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 Shi’ite shrine bombed north of here.

The Samarra attack also threatened to deepen Iraq’s political crisis, as the 30-member bloc of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr immediately suspended its participation in parliament in protest.

The Golden Mosque bombing in February 2006, at one of Iraqi Shi’ism’s holiest sites, was also blamed on Sunni militants linked to al Qaeda.

That attack unleashed a bloodbath of reprisals — of Shi’ite death-squad murders of Sunnis, and Sunni bombing attacks on Shi’ites. At least 34,000 civilians died in last year’s violence, the United Nations reported.

Yesterday’s stunning attack came in near-simultaneous explosions at about 9 a.m., 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.

Mr. al-Maliki said policemen at the shrine were detained for questioning — 15 of them, according to a senior U.S. 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 attack outraged moderate Muslims.

Egypt’s government said it was “profoundly shocked and extremely angry.” Egypt, which is predominantly Sunni, has the largest Muslim population in the Middle East.

A leading U.S. civil rights group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said, “We strongly condemn this obvious attempt to incite further sectarian violence in Iraq and hope that those responsible will be apprehended and punished.”

The blasts shook the city of Samarra on the Tigris River, 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.”

An indefinite curfew was immediately imposed on Samarra, and, as Iraqi army and police reinforcements and U.S. troops poured in, the streets emptied by midafternoon, witnesses said.

A few hundred U.S. 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 p.m. yesterday, on vehicle traffic and large gatherings in the capital. Mr. al-Maliki, whose office said the curfew would be lifted Saturday, then traveled to Samarra with U.S. ground forces commander Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno and visited the mosque ruins.

An official close to the prime minister, citing intelligence reports, said the bombing was likely the work of al Qaeda, whose militants have recently moved into Samarra from surrounding areas.

A U.S. statement, from Ambassador Ryan Crocker and U.S. Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus, unequivocally blamed al Qaeda, saying the terror group sought “to sow dissent and inflame sectarian strife.”

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