Sunni mosques hit in retaliation

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BAGHDAD — A handful of Sunni mosques were attacked or burned yesterday, but curfews and increased troop levels kept Iraq in relative calm a day after suspected al Qaeda bombers toppled the towering minarets of a prized Shi’ite shrine.

At least four persons were reported killed in apparent retaliatory attacks in Basra, and a U.S. soldier said a dozen rockets or mortars rained down on Baghdad’s heavily guarded Green Zone yesterday afternoon. At least one fell outside Iraq’s parliament, about 25 minutes before the State Department’s No. 2 official was to visit a nearby U.S. military building.

Also yesterday, the U.S. military said it detained 25 suspects in raids against al Qaeda in Iraq in the past two days. One taken into custody near Tarmiyah, 30 miles north of Baghdad, was thought to be a close associate of Omar al-Baghdadi, who heads the al Qaeda front group Islamic State in Iraq.

Wednesday’s attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra, which was blamed on Sunni extremists, stoked fears of a surge in violence between Muslim sects. A bombing at the same mosque complex in February 2006 that destroyed the shrine’s famed golden dome unleashed a bloodbath of reprisals.

The U.S. military said Iraqi forces had arrested the Emergency Service Unit commander and 12 policemen responsible for security at the shrine at the time of the explosions.

Increased U.S. and Iraqi military patrols crisscrossed the streets of the capital, and additional checkpoints were set up along roads leading to Sadr City, witnesses said. Hundreds marched peacefully through the streets of the teeming neighborhood, a stronghold of Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia.

Demonstrations also took place in Kut, Diwaniyah, Najaf and Basra — all predominantly Shi’ite cities in the south.

A ban on vehicular traffic was expected to remain in place in Baghdad until tomorrow.

In the midafternoon, explosions rocked central Baghdad, and smoke billowed over the U.S.-guarded Green Zone, which houses the U.S. and British embassies, as well as the offices of the Iraqi government.

The attacks erupted less than a half-hour before a press conference by Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte, who was in Baghdad for meetings with U.S. and Iraqi officials. Speaking a few hundred yards away, Mr. Negroponte condemned the Samarra bombings as a “deliberate attempt by al Qaeda to sow dissent and inflame sectarian strife among the people of Iraq.”

Police in the southern city of Basra said yesterday that four persons were killed and six wounded in attacks on four mosques in the city.

Four Sunni mosques near Baghdad also were attacked or burned within several hours of the Samarra bombings, police said. One of them was a target again yesterday.

The Samarra site contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams — Ali al-Hadi, who died in 868, and his son Hassan al-Askari, who died in 874. Both are descendants of the prophet Muhammad, and Shi’ites consider them to be among his successors.

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