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.
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.
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.
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.