By John Ward Anderson and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, June 14, 2007
BAGHDAD, June 13 -- The Iraqi government imposed a curfew across Baghdad on Wednesday after insurgents used explosives to demolish two minarets at a revered Shiite shrine whose partial destruction last year sparked a devastating increase in sectarian bloodshed.
The attack raised concerns among U.S. and Iraqi leaders about a resurgence of such violence. President Bush said in a statement Wednesday evening that the bombing "was clearly aimed at inflaming sectarian tensions" and called on "all Iraqis to refrain from acts of vengeance."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in a nationally televised address, urged his countrymen to "exercise self-restraint" and sought to portray the attack as evidence that insurgents "have lost hope in dismembering the state."
The 9 a.m. blasts occurred at the historic Askariya shrine in Samarra, 65 miles north of Baghdad, where explosions in February 2006 destroyed its gilded dome. Tens of thousands of Iraqis died last year in the ensuing Shiite-Sunni strife.
Wednesday's attack is certain to give fresh impetus to U.S. demands that the Iraqi government expedite political steps toward reconciliation among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. U.S. officials have feared that a high-level assassination or an attack similar to the 2006 bombing of the Askariya shrine could prompt renewed sectarian bloodletting and undo recent security improvements credited to the deployment of thousands of additional U.S. troops in Baghdad and other parts of the country.
In his statement, Bush said the U.S.-led coalition had sent additional forces to Samarra to restore calm and security to the area.
U.S. and some Iraqi officials immediately blamed Wednesday's blasts on al-Qaeda in Iraq, an extremist Sunni group that regularly attacks U.S. and Iraqi targets, the latter in an apparent effort to provoke chaos and civil war.
Maliki's Shiite-led government imposed the curfew across Baghdad beginning at 3 p.m. Wednesday, but some reprisal attacks were reported outside the capital.
In Iskandariyah, about 30 miles south of Baghdad, fighters believed to be from the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr planted explosives at the Sunni Grand Mosque and flattened it, according to Babil provincial police Capt. Muthana Ahmad. He said the militiamen also attacked the smaller Abdullah al-Jubury Sunni mosque in the city.
Religious leaders from both sects appealed for calm. In the holy city of Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, senior aides to Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani urged self-control on protesters who gathered outside his office.
Sadr, whose Mahdi Army was accused of brutally attacking Sunnis after the dome of the Askariya mosque was destroyed 16 months ago, said that "no Sunni would desecrate" the Samarra shrine; he blamed the blasts on "the hidden hands of the occupiers," his term for the U.S. military.
Sadr lambasted the Iraqi government for failing to protect the mosque and declared what he called a mourning period of three days. Aides announced that 30 lawmakers from Sadr's political bloc would boycott parliament until the government began repairs at the complex.
The Askariya shrine, which dates from the 10th century, contains the tombs of two revered 9th-century Shiite imams and is one of the four most revered mosques in Iraq.
No group asserted responsibility for the Feb. 22, 2006, bombing, which was a seminal moment in the four-year Iraq conflict, accelerating the country's disintegration and pushing it toward civil war. Iraqi officials blamed al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Immediately after that attack, Shiite death squads increased their killings, dumping hundreds of mutilated bodies, mostly Sunnis, around the capital. More than 100 Sunni mosques were damaged in reprisals. Tens of thousands of Sunnis and Shiites were driven from their homes in bouts of ethnic cleansing. Numerous Shiites were driven from Samarra, and it now is almost exclusively Sunni.
Wednesday's destruction of the shrine's two minarets appeared to have been caused by explosive charges placed at their bases.
"We heard the first explosion, and when we turned around to see what happened, another explosion took place in the second minaret," Abu Abdullah, who lives near the shrine, said in a telephone interview. "To lose the shrine hurt us a lot and made us afraid about what will happen next." No one was injured in the blasts.
Maliki, in a visit to the shrine complex late Wednesday, said security forces responsible for guarding the site may have been involved in the attack. The mosque has been heavily guarded by Iraqi troops since the destruction of its dome.
Iraqi law enforcement officials said the 15-man unit responsible for defending the mosque, from the 3rd Battalion of the Salahuddin Provincial Police, had been detained.
The complex had two security forces on Wednesday -- one from Tikrit responsible for an outer ring of defenses, and the other, from the government's Facilities Protection Services, which was responsible for the site itself, according to a U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Christopher Garver.
But witnesses interviewed by The Washington Post said a special unit of commandos, apparently from Baghdad, arrived at the mosque Tuesday night.
"The shrine was guarded by a police force mostly from Tikrit, but yesterday around 6 p.m. a police commando force came from Baghdad and pushed the police force that was guarding the shrine away and took their place," Mahmood al-Samaraie, 42, who lives near the mosque, said in a telephone interview. "In fact, some disagreement and fighting between the two forces took place, because the previous force did not want to leave their position, but later they had to."
Garver said U.S. forces were helping the Iraqi government investigate the attack. Although there were U.S. troops in the region, he said, "the security for the shrine itself is an Iraqi responsibility."
In a separate development, Sunni tribal leaders met in Ramadi on Wednesday to discuss forming a new tribal coalition in Anbar province that could challenge an existing group, the Anbar Salvation Council, that the U.S. military has relied on to combat al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Raad Sabah al-Alwani, a leader of the council, which was formed last year, said he considered the creation of the new group an attempt to seize power from the organization.
"They came recently from Jordan and Syria and the other countries, they are not like us," he said. "We suffered and founded this council, and we fought al-Qaeda. They want to come and, after all these efforts, they want to take our place."
Since the U.S. military began its formal cooperation with tribal leaders, violence has dropped dramatically in the province. A leader in the move to create a rival organization, Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, criticized council members for relying too heavily on Americans and for using the partnership for personal gain.
Maj. Jeffrey Pool, a U.S. Marine spokesman in Anbar, said in an e-mail that if "the Anbar Salvation Council would dissolve that does not mean this would be an anti Coalition action by the tribes." The council, he added, "will hopefully dissolve because it outlived its usefulness, which was to fight al-Qaeda."
Special correspondents Muhanned Saif Aldin in Samarra, K.I. Ibrahim and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad, and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.