Thursday, February 23, 2006

SAMARRA, Iraq — Terrorists detonated bombs inside one of Iraq’s holiest Shi’ite shrines yesterday, destroying its golden dome and triggering more than 90 reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques. The president warned that extremists were pushing the country toward civil war.

With the gleaming dome of the 1,200-year-old Askariya “Golden” Mosque reduced to rubble, leaders on both sides called for calm. Many Shi’ites said the United States was partly to blame.

The unprecedented spasm of sectarian violence seemed to push Iraq closer to all-out civil war than at any point in the three years since the U.S.-led overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein.

“We are facing a major conspiracy that is targeting Iraq’s unity,” said President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. “We should all stand hand in hand to prevent the danger of a civil war.”

President Bush pledged American help to restore the mosque about 100 miles north of Baghdad. The bombing dealt a severe blow to U.S. efforts to keep Iraq from falling deeper into sectarian violence.

“The terrorists in Iraq have again proven that they are enemies of all faiths and of all humanity,” Mr. Bush said. “The world must stand united against them and steadfast behind the people of Iraq.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair also condemned the bombing and pledged funds toward the shrine’s reconstruction.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, said the attack was an attempt to foment sectarian strife and warned it was a “critical moment for Iraq.”

No one was reported injured in the shrine bombing.

But at least 19 persons, including three Sunni clerics, were killed in the reprisal attacks, mainly in Baghdad and predominantly Shi’ite provinces to the south, according to the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country’s largest Sunni political group.

Many of the attacks appeared to have been carried out by Shi’ite militias that the United States wants to see disbanded.

In Basra, police said militiamen broke into a prison, hauled out 12 inmates — including two Egyptians, two Tunisians, a Libyan, a Saudi and a Turk — and fatally shot them in retaliation for the shrine attack.

Major Sunni groups condemned the attack, and a leading Sunni politician, Tariq al-Hashimi, urged clerics and politicians to calm the situation “before it spins out of control.”

The country’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, sent instructions to his followers forbidding attacks on Sunni mosques and called for seven days of mourning.

But he hinted, as did Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi, that religious militias could be given a bigger security role if the government cannot protect shrines.

Some Shi’ite political leaders were angry with the United States because it has urged them to form a government in which nonsectarian figures control the army and police. Mr. Khalilzad warned this week — in a statement clearly aimed at Shi’ite hard-liners — that the U.S. would not support institutions run by sectarian groups with links to armed militias.

The Shi’ite fury over the third major attack against Shi’ite targets in as many days raised the likelihood that Shi’ite religious parties will reject U.S. demands to curb militias.

One Shi’ite political leader said Mr. Khalilzad shared blame for the shrine attack.

“These statements … gave green lights to terrorist groups. And, therefore, he shares in part of the responsibility,” said Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the former commander of its militia.

The interior minister, who controls the security forces that Sunnis accuse of widespread abuses, is a member of Mr. al-Hakim’s party.

The new tensions came as Iraq’s factions struggle to assemble a government after the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.

The Askariya shrine contains the tombs of two imams considered by Shi’ites to be among the successors of the prophet Muhammad.

No group took responsibility for the bombing, carried out by four persons posing as police. But suspicion fell on Sunni extremist groups.

The top of the dome, which was completed in 1905, collapsed, leaving just traces of gold showing through the rubble. Part of the shrine’s tiled northern wall was damaged.

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