Explosion Destroys Dome of Iraq Shiite Shrine
Terrorists set off an explosion that destroyed the dome of the Askariya mosque, a major Iraqi Shiite shrine.
A large explosion destroyed the golden dome of one of Iraq’s most famous Shiite shrines Wednesday, sending protesters pouring into the streets. The third major attack against Shiites in as many days threatened to inflame sectarian passions at a time when talks on a coalition government have bogged down.
Shiite leaders called for calm, but scattered attacks occurred against Sunni mosques in Baghdad. U.S. and Iraqi forces deployed around major Sunni mosques, and 500 Iraqi soldiers were sent to Sunni neighborhoods in the capital to prevent clashes between Shiites and Sunnis, army Capt. Jassim al-Wahash said. No group claimed responsibility for the early morning attack on the Askariya shrine in this city 60 miles north of Baghdad, but suspicion fell on Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
The Interior Ministry said four men, one wearing a military uniform and three in black, entered the mosque early Wednesday and detonated two bombs, one of which collapsed the dome and damaging part of the northern wall of the shrine. Police believed an unknown number of people may have been buried under the debris after the 6:55 a.m. explosion at the Askariya mosque. The shrine contains the tombs of two revered Shiite imams, both descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. In Baghdad, National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie blamed religious zealots such as the al-Qaida terror network, telling Al-Arabiya television that the attack was an attempt “to pull Iraq toward civil war.”
The country’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, sent instructions to his followers forbidding attacks on Sunni mosques, especially the major ones in Baghdad. He called for seven days of mourning, his aides said. The Sunni Endowment, a government organization that cares for Sunni mosques and shrines, condemned the blast and said it was sending a delegation to Samarra to investigate.
The terrorists are doing an excellent job of exacerbating sectarian divisions, to be sure. Still, we could be making it harder for them. It is rather surprising that a target of this magnitude was not guarded. Tourists routinely undergo bad checks and weapons screening to get inside even minor attractions in D.C. Surely, that isn’t too severe a measure to take in the Iraqi context.
Update: Edward Wong adds more at the NYT.
Insurgents dressed as police commandos detonated powerful explosives this morning inside one of Shiite Islam’s most sacred shrines, destroying most of the building, located in the volatile town of Samarra, and prompting thousands of Shiites to flood into streets across the country in protest. The golden-domed shrine housed the tombs of two revered leaders of Shiite Islam and symbolized the place where the Imam Mahdi, a mythical, messianic figure, disappeared from this earth. Believers in the imam say he will return when the apocalypse is near, to cleanse the world of its evils.
Samarra has long been one of the most violent cities in Iraq, and American forces there have struggled to contain a virulent Sunni-led insurgency. The American military has tried various offensives, only to have insurgents regroup and carry out further strikes. The Americans have also had little success in propping up Iraqi security forces in the town. Shiites protestors took to the streets shortly after the explosion. In Baghdad, militiamen loyal to radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who is a fervent believer in the prophecy of the Imam Mahdi, drove through the streets of Sadr City with Kalashnikovs, many accusing the Americans of carrying out the attack.
Update 2: Juan Cole provides some good background:
The shrine, sacred to Shiiites, honors 3 Imams or holy descendants of the Prophet. They are Ali al-Hadi, Hasan al-Askari, and his disappeared son Muhammad al-Mahdi. Thousands of Shiiites demonnstrated in Samarra and in East Baghdad, against this desecration.
The Twelfh Imam or Mahdi is believed by Shiites to have disappeared into a supernatural realm (just as Christians believe in the ascension of Christ) from which he will someday return.
Some Shiites think his second coming is imminent. Muqtada all-Sadr and his followers are among them. They are livid about this attack on the shrine of the Mahdi’s father.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is also a firm believer in the imminent coming of the Mahdi. I worry that Iranian anger will boil over as a result of this bombing of a Shiite millenarian symbol.