A large explosion early Wednesday in Samarra heavily damaged the 101-year-old golden dome of one of Iraq's most famous Shiite religious shrines, sending protesters pouring into the streets. It was the third major attack against Shiite targets in as many days.
Police believe an unknown number of people may have been buried under the debris from 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.
Tradition says the shrine, which draws Shiite pilgrims from throughout the Islamic world, is near the place where the last of the 12 Shiite imams, Mohammed al-Mahdi, disappeared. Al-Mahdi, known as the "hidden imam," was the son and grandson of the two imams buried in the Askariya shrine.
Shiites believe he is still alive and will return to restore justice to humanity. An attack at such an important religious shrine constitutes a grave assault on Shiite Islam at a time of rising sectarian tensions in Iraq.
National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie said armed men wearing special forces uniforms broke inside the shrine and seized the guards, including policemen, responsible for protecting the site. The gunmen planted the explosives and fled, he said.
In an interview with the Al Arabiya television network, Al-Rubaie blamed extremists represented by the al Qaeda terror network and the Sunni militant group Ansar al-Sunnah for the explosion, which he says are intended to "to pull Iraq toward civil war."
Thousands of demonstrators gathered near the shrine, waving Iraqi flags, Shiite religious banners and copies of the Muslim holy book, Quran. Shiite leaders in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood called for demonstrations against the blast.
"This criminal act aims at igniting civil strife," said Mahmoud al-Samarie, a 28-year-old builder who was among the crowd in this city 60 miles north of Baghdad. "We demand an investigation so that the criminals who did this [will] be punished. If the government fails to do so, then we will take up arms and chase the people behind this attack."
In other recent developments:
At least 969 Iraqis have been killed in war-related violence this year and at least 986 have been wounded, according to an Associated Press count.
Large-scale attacks against civilians had declined in recent weeks amid widespread public criticism, including from Sunnis clerics and others sympathetic to the Sunni-dominated insurgency.
Religious leaders at other mosques and shrines throughout Samarra denounced Wednesday's mosque attack in statements read over loudspeakers.
The Sunni Endowment, a government organization that cares for Sunni mosques and shrines, condemned the blast and said it is sending a delegation to Samarra to investigate.
Tuesday's bombing in the Dora section of Baghdad was the deadliest since Jan. 19, when a suicide attacker blew himself up in a coffee shop, killing 22 people and injuring 23.
Terrified children screamed and several women wailed for their dead, crying, "the terrorists, may God punish them." Shattered bits of fruits and vegetables from vendors' pushcarts lay scattered on the street amid pools of blood.
A policeman, 1st Lt. Maitham Abdul-Razaq, said the blast apparently was aimed at a police patrol but missed its target, killing and maiming shoppers strolling with their families along a street lined with appliance shops and fruit and vegetable stalls.
The Dora bombing was the second major attack in as many days against a Shiite target in the capital. Twelve people died Monday when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt on a bus in the heavily Shiite district of Kazimiyah.
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