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Attack deepens Iraq's divide

Blasts at a major shrine set off widespread Shiite protests.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 23, 2006



BAGHDAD

An attack Wednesday that destroyed the soaring gold dome of one of ShiiteIslam's holiest shrines is being interpreted by most Shiites here as a direct attack on their faith - and has sharply raised sectarian tensions.

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It's unclear if any people were killed in the massive explosion in Samarra, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. But the destruction of the shrine may be the most emotionally charged of attacks on Shiite targets thus far in the war, and could set back already hamstrung efforts to form a government of Shiite and Sunni unity.

As citizens deserted the streets of Baghdad in the wake of the attack, many said they feared this could be a seminal moment in Iraq's low-intensity civil war.

"The war could really be on now,'' says Abu Hassan, a Shiite street peddler who declined to give his full name. "This is something greater and more symbolic than attacks on people. This is a strike at who we are."

The attack occurred shortly before 7 a.m. in the largely Sunni city of Samarra, which has remained an insurgent hotbed despite years of US operations there. It was carried out by a small group of men who somehow gained access to the usually heavily protected Askariya shrine, set demolition explosives, and then fled.

Though the shrine dates back 1,000 years, it has been rebuilt numerous times. Its current dome was built in 1905. There are no records of previous attacks on the building or its predecessors.

"This could be a tipping point,'' says Juan Cole, a historian of Shiite Islam at the University of Michigan. "At some point, the Shiite street is going to be so fed up that they're not going to listen any more to calls for restraint."

Within hours of the attack, tens of thousands of angry Shiites - many of them members of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army who brandished rifles and rocket-propelled grenades - took to the streets in at least least a half-dozen central and southern Iraqi cities. A spokesman at Mr. Sadr's main office in Baghdad said the militiamen were acting spontaneously, and had not been ordered out onto the streets.

The Iraqi and US militaries scrambled forces in Baghdad and other cities in an effort to protect Sunni mosques. US soldiers cordoned off the approaches to the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad's Sunni- controlled Adhamiya district.

Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most respected cleric, issued a statement forbidding attacks on Sunni mosques and calling for seven days of national mourning. But in a rare move, he also called for public protests. Ayatollah Sistani has typically called for even peaceful protesters to stay off the streets, fearing a downward spiral into violence.

Ayatollah Sistani "has the coolest and wisest head in Iraq, but this has chaos written all over it,'' says Mr. Cole. "He must know the likelihood of these protests being completely peaceful is low, so he's got to be absolutely furious to call for people to come out on the streets."

Eyewitnesses in at least four cities reported attacks on Sunni mosques. Tariq al-Hashemi, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the biggest Sunni groups, said at a press conference that 29 Sunni mosques were burned across the country and demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice. He also dismissed Shiite protesters as "rabble," a term favored by Saddam Hussein to refer to Shiites.

Meanwhile, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the cleric who leads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of the country's two most powerful Shiite parties, and which has ties to the Shiite Badr militia, threatened reprisals in an interview with Sharqiya TV.

"If the government can't protect us then we will have to do it ourselves,'' he said.

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