Appeals for calm after attack on Shia shrine


IRAQ:Political and religious leaders from both sides of Iraq's sectarian divide condemned the destruction of two minarets at a revered Shia shrine at Samarra by suspected Sunni militants yesterday and called for restraint amid fears of a violent backlash against Sunni Arabs.

It was the second attack in 15 months on the Askariya mosque, 96km north of Baghdad, whose famous gilded dome was destroyed by a bomb in February 2006. No one was killed in that bombing, but it generated a ruinous wave of sectarian blood-letting which dented hopes of national reconciliation.

Details of yesterday's attack remained sketchy last night. Iraqi police said that two almost simultaneous explosions occurred inside the mosque compound at about 9am. Other reports said that the two minarets had been toppled by rockets.

The Askariya shrine contains the tombs of two revered 9th-century imams considered by Shias to be the direct successors of the Prophet Muhammad. A smaller dome nearby covers the cleft from where the 12th imam is expected to reappear to establish the true faith on Earth.

Prime minister Nuri al-Maliki held a series of emergency meetings with president Jalal Talabani, Gen David Petraeus, the senior US commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador. He ordered an indefinite curfew in Baghdad as US and Iraqi troop reinforcements were dispatched to Samarra.

"I am sure these people will not stop doing such acts and they will try to create more problems and spark more violence," Mr Maliki said on state television.

He said that he had ordered the arrest of those in charge of security at the mosque and he vowed to "severely punish anyone involved in the bombing".

Curfews were also in place in a number of Shia cities in the south last night to prevent unrest.

Iraq's pre-eminent Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, expressed his outrage but urged believers "to exercise self-restraint and avoid any vengeful act that would target innocent people or the holy places of others".

Senior Sunni groups, including the Association of Muslim Clerics, also condemned the explosions. However, despite the appeals for calm, police in Baghdad said last night that at least four Sunni mosques had been attacked, while a smaller Shia shrine had been bombed north of the capital.

There was also growing anger among Shia ranks at the failure of the government of Mr Maliki and its US backers to safeguard one of the most sacred sites in Shia Islam. The powerful Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr railed against the occupation and called for peaceful demonstrations and a three-day mourning period to mark the destruction of the shrine. His political bloc, a main plank in Mr Maliki's ruling Shia alliance, announced its withdrawal from the Iraqi parliament in protest. A few hundred US soldiers are stationed around the mainly Sunni city of Samarra to provide security, although they leave the protection of the Askariya mosque to Iraqi forces.

A Sadrist MP, Salah Shansel, said that his bloc had approached Mr Maliki six months ago to discuss their concerns about security in Samarra. "The prime minister had ordered the interior minister to create two new brigades to protect the shrine and its approaches," Mr Shansel said. "But the interior minister gave the job to a former Baathist army officer and we see the results." - (Guardian Service)