Attack deepens Iraq's divide
Blasts at a major shrine set off widespread Shiite protests.
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He also said US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is partly to blame for Wednesday's attack. The ambassador has made a number of forceful statements this week urging Shiite leaders to give Sunni Arabs a bigger say in government than they won at the ballot box, and has warned against allowing groups like SCIRI, which he deems overly "sectarian," from seeking to control security posts in the next government.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Khalilzad's "statements created more pressure and gave a green light to terrorist groups, [so] he shares part of the responsibility," Mr. Hakim said.
Shiite leaders like Hakim frequently use the word "terrorist" as a blanket term for Sunni political groups that have ties to the insurgency, and which Khalilzad would like to see join the next government.
In much the same way that a Danish newspaper's cartoons of the prophet Muhammad stirred violent protest across the globe, the reaction to this incident stems from a deep cultural identity and religious faith that can surprise outsiders. Though there was outrage at a bomb attack in Baghdad's dangerous Dora neighborhood that killed 21 Shiites on Tuesday, no attack has stirred the type of tension created by this one in Samarra.
Samarra is not simply a Sunni city with a Shiite shrine at its heart. It hosts a confusing welter of tribal allegiances and rivalries that have left it violent and unstable since the war began. About half of its 200,000 residents have abandoned the city in the past two years, and US soldiers built a vast earthen berm around it last August in an effort to keep insurgents out.
The city's history is also wound up with an age-old Sunni-Shiite rivalry, as well as with the apocalyptic beliefs of many Shiite clerics, like Sadr. The shrine contains the tombs of Ali al-Hadi and his son Hasan al-Askari, the 10th and 11th imams of Shiite Islam who died in the 9th century. Legend has it that Askari's son, Muhammad al-Mahdi, was born in the city. It is one of four main Shiite pilgrimage sites in Iraq.
Mahdi was the 12th and final of the Shiite imams. Legend has it that he was "occulted" by God before his death, and will return to earth to bring an era of justice and peace, followed by the end of the world. Sadr's militia is named for this imam.
Sadr and his followers are convinced that the time for the Mahdi's return is close. "He disappeared into a supernatural realm from there ... so this will be interpreted as an attack on the imam al-Mahdi, an attack on their guy; so for the Sadr people it's an apocalyptic moment,'' says Cole. "There will be reprisals."
There was also outrage in Iran, the most populous Shiite state, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, is a deep believer in the looming return of the Mahdi.
In the 19th century, the shrine became a keyseat of Shiite learning and helped contribute to mass conversions to Shiism in central Iraq, alarming then-ruling Sunni Ottoman officials, who took steps to limit the influence of Shiite clerics.
Under Mr. Hussein, the city's importance to Shiites diminished, in part because of government measures to limit Shiite pilgrimages to the shrine. Al-Askariya enjoyed a brief revival after his fall before the city was swept by violence.
• Located in Samarra, Askariya is one of the most important Shiite shrines in the world, attracting millions of pilgrims.
• Askariya contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams, Ali al-Hadi and his son Hassan al-Askari. Shiites believe that Askari's son Muhammad al-Mahdi, the 12th imam who disappeared in 878, will return to earth.
• The mosque, first developed in the 10th century, has been rebuilt numerous times. Its golden dome, which dominates the skyline, was built in 1905 and contains some 72,000 gold pieces.