By Ellen Knickmeyer and K.I. Ibrahim
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 23, 2006
BAGHDAD, Feb. 22 -- Bombers blasted the gilded dome of one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines into naked steel and gaping blue sky Wednesday in a provocative assault that roused tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites into angry protests and deadly clashes.
The highest spiritual leaders of Iraq's Shiite majority simultaneously rallied and restrained the outrage of their followers after the attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra, about 65 miles north of Baghdad. Though no casualties were reported, the bombing was the most destructive attack on a major shrine since the U.S. invasion, and Iraqi leaders said it was meant to draw Shiites and Sunnis into war. "This is as 9/11 in the United States," said Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite and one of Iraq's two vice presidents.
President Bush, as well as top U.S. military and civilian representatives here, appealed for calm.
In Baghdad, Shiite boys and men abruptly abandoned classrooms, homes and jobs to muster outside the headquarters of the influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the heart of Sadr City, the slum named for the cleric's father.
"This is a day we will never forget," said Naseer Sabah, 24, who had left his job at a pastry factory without changing clothes to join the black-clad Shiite militia fighters clutching pistols, Kalashnikov assault rifles and grenade launchers outside Sadr's headquarters. Thousands converged on the Sadr offices, on foot or in buses and pickup trucks packed with armed men hanging out the windows.
"We await the orders of our preachers," teenagers around Sabah cried.
"We are the soldiers of the clerics,'' Shiite protesters chanted in Karrada, another of Baghdad's Shiite neighborhoods. Demonstrators there shouted a warning to their enemies: "If they are up to it, let them face us."
Other protests were reported in the predominantly Shiite cities of Najaf, Karbala, Basra and elsewhere.
Sunni political leaders said retaliatory attacks hit more than 20 Sunni mosques across Iraq with bombs, gunfire or arson. Authorities reported at least 18 people killed in the aftermath, including two Sunni clerics. In one incident, in Basra in southern Iraq, police said gunmen in police uniforms broke into a jail, seized 12 Sunni men and later killed them, according to the Reuters news agency.
Many of Baghdad's millions shuttered shops and left work early, rushing home to tense neighborhoods where gunfire rang out overnight. In one neighborhood, families lay on the floors of their houses to evade bullets as militiamen loyal to Sadr confronted Iraqi troops backed by U.S. military helicopters outside a Sunni site.
Wednesday's attack hit Samarra's Askariya shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque. The mosque holds the tombs of two revered 9th-century imams of the Shiite branch of Islam, including Hassan al-Askari, father of the "hidden imam," al-Mahdi. Many Shiites believe that Mahdi is still alive and that his reemergence one day will signal the beginning of the end of the world.
Shiites consider the mosque in Samarra to be a tangible link with the hidden imam, and Sadr's tightly disciplined militia is called the Mahdi Army, reflecting its fealty to the revered figure.
Early in the last century, Shiite faithful paid to cloak the mosque's graceful, onion-shaped dome in gleaming gold. On Wednesday, every vestige of the dome was destroyed, the tiled and gilt facade stripped down to mud brick.
Police said two bombs that had been planted at the mosque overnight exploded at dawn. Some local officials in Samarra said the bombers were dressed in the uniforms of Iraqi security forces. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari, in one of several televised news conferences and appeals by Iraqi and U.S. leaders, said preliminary investigation into the bombing pointed to "infiltration'' of Iraqi security forces.
Jafari declared Thursday a day of national mourning. Iraq's Interior and Defense ministries ordered Iraqi security forces on maximum alert for what was expected to be a day of mass protests. Trucks with loudspeakers trolled Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, announcing protests set for Thursday morning.
Shiite religious and political leaders eschewed any public talk of revenge, mindful that civil strife would threaten the dominance assumed by Iraqi Shiites since the 2003 ouster of President Saddam Hussein by the U.S.-led invasion. The Shiites have withstood countless other provocations in nearly three years of war. Bombings on Monday and Tuesday killed scores of people in two Shiite areas of Baghdad.
There was no immediate assertion of responsibility for Wednesday's attack. Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, told al-Arabiya television that he believed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda in Iraq organization may have been the culprit. "The main aim of these terrorist groups is to drag Iraq into a civil war,'' Rubaie said.
"Violence will only contribute to what the terrorists sought to achieve by this act,'' Bush said in a written statement in Washington. "I ask all Iraqis to exercise restraint in the wake of this tragedy."
Bush promised U.S. help rebuilding the mosque, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the American military commander in Iraq, issued a joint statement calling this a "critical moment'' for Iraq. The top U.N. envoy here, Ashraf Qazi, said he would ask the country's political and religious leaders to hold a dialogue under the auspices of the United Nations, which has taken a back seat to the United States in the conflict.
Iraq's most influential Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, called on Shiites to take to the streets, but peacefully. Sistani, who avoids the news media, allowed himself to be shown on television consulting on Wednesday's crisis with the country's other leading Shiite ayatollahs. His unprecedented appearance with the three other clerics underscored the gravity with which they viewed the near-destruction of their shrine.
A separate statement from Sistani appeared to warn that the well-armed militias of the Shiite religious parties might be called out to protect other shrines if Iraq's unsteady government failed to do so. "If its security institutions are unable to provide the necessary security, the faithful are able to do that by the will and blessings of God,'' he said in the written statement.
Sistani's every public word is weighed and studied by followers, and his measured messages have heavy political influence in Iraq.
In Sadr City, representatives of Sadr called for restraint and sought to deflect blame from Iraq's Sunnis, the Shiites' rivals for power. Followers came running late Wednesday when a Sadr preacher took up a bullhorn outside Sadr's offices to give the direction that the armed, angry crowds were waiting for. The mosque attack was the work of "occupiers," or Americans, "and Zionists," said the cleric, Abdul Zara Saidy. In Iran, Shiite leaders echoed the accusation.
Correspondent Jonathan Finer in Baghdad, special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad, and other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.