Iraqi Official Says Insurgent Cell Bombed Shiite Shrine

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 29, 2006

BAGHDAD, June 28 -- The bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in Samarra that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war in February was executed by a seven-man cell of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq that included two Iraqis, four Saudis and a Tunisian man who has been captured, Iraq's national security adviser said Wednesday.

Mowaffak al-Rubaie told reporters that the culprits behind the destruction of the golden-domed shrine emerged a few days ago, after 16 foreign fighters attacked an Iraqi military checkpoint in Duluiyah, 25 miles north of Baghdad.

In the ensuing gunfight, 15 of the fighters were killed and the lone survivor, Yasri Fakher Muhammad Ali al-Trigui, was seriously wounded. Trigui, a Tunisian known as Abu Qadama, admitted in captivity to taking part in one of the most provocative attacks of the Iraq war, Rubaie said.

"Qadama gave full details on the shrine destruction," Rubaie said. "The sole reason behind his action was to drive a wedge between the Shia and Sunnis and to ignite and trigger a sectarian war in this country."

Rubaie identified the leader of the al-Qaeda in Iraq cell as Haitham al-Badri, a Sunni Arab Iraqi born in Samarra. He remains at large, and officials have distributed his wanted poster at checkpoints and border crossings.

Badri was a top official in the group's operation in Salahuddin province. According to Samarra residents, before joining al-Qaeda in Iraq, Badri was a warrant officer in the Special Republican Guard under Saddam Hussein. After the invasion, he joined the insurgent group Ansar al-Sunna, where he trained recruits and carried out attacks.

On the night of Feb. 21, according to Rubaie's account, the al-Qaeda team slipped into the shrine in Samarra, tied up the security guards, locked them in a room and spent several hours arranging explosives that would detonate at dawn.

The bombing changed the dynamics of violence in Iraq. What had been primarily a conflict between Sunni insurgents and people associated with the Iraqi government and the foreign troops defending it became a power struggle between Iraq's two main religious sects that continues today. Reprisal attacks hit hundreds of mosques and shrines, Sunnis and Shiites were murdered with impunity, and thousands of refugees fled their neighborhoods.

The choice of the Samarra shrine as a target fueled much of the outrage. One of the holiest for Shiite Muslims, it is the burial place of two revered 9th-century imams. One of them, Hassan al-Askari, is believed to be the father of the "hidden imam," the Mahdi, whose reappearance will signal the apocalypse.

In Samarra in February, some local officials said the bombers had been dressed in the uniforms of Iraqi security forces. A DVD later distributed in the area, said to be made by Ansar al-Sunna, contended that Interior Ministry commandos had organized the attack. Some Samarra residents said they put more credence in the video than in the national security adviser's account.

"The Iraqi government has made this announcement to look innocent of this crime," said Khaldoon Ahmed, 33, a high school teacher in Samarra. "If they are really prepared to reveal the truth, then we demand the formation of an international committee to investigate this incident, and we will not let anyone rebuild the shrine until that is done."

Others called for a swift demise for those responsible.

"They should be executed in a public square so that they become a lesson to those who violate the sacred places of the Muslims," said Ahmed Hussein, 50, a Samarra lawyer.

Meanwhile, news services reported that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had been contacted by several Sunni Arab insurgent groups about his proposal to end violence by bringing them into the Iraqi political process. The Associated Press said nearly a dozen insurgent groups had agreed to immediately halt attacks on all foreign or Iraqi targets if the United States agreed to withdraw foreign forces within two years.

Maliki has said, however, that amnesty offers included in his recent reconciliation proposal did not extend to killers of Americans or Iraqis, and the Bush administration has rejected setting a timetable for troop withdrawals. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in Washington that President Bush's view "has been and remains that a timetable is not something that is useful. It is a signal to the enemies that all you have to do is just wait and it's yours."

The daily violence in Iraq continued on Wednesday. A dark blue Daewoo parked outside a Sunni Mosque in Baqubah exploded, killing two people and wounding 12 others, many of them customers at a tea shop across the street, according to Laith Salan, the senior emergency room physician at Baqubah General Hospital.

The U.S. military said that a soldier was killed on Tuesday night when a roadside bomb exploded under his vehicle. A U.S. Marine was killed Tuesday in fighting in predominantly Sunni Anbar province. U.S. and Iraqi forces have been operating in the provincial capital of Ramadi in an attempt to wrest control from insurgents.

In Baqubah, an al-Qaeda insurgent was detained during a raid in which troops mistakenly killed a neighbor who was "acting suspiciously" but turned out to be a noncombatant, the military said.

Special correspondents Hassan Shammari, K.I. Ibrahim and Saad al-Izzi and other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.

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