Iraq Braces For Worst After Shrine Blast

The Shrine of the Ali L-Hadi and Hassan Al-Askari (C) along with the famous Spiral Minaret (R) December 1, 2003 in downtown Sammara, Iraq, left. A watch tower of the famous Golden Dome Shiite shrine is left standing alone after insurgents blew up the two minarets in Samarra, Wednesday, June 13, 2007.
Getty Images/AP Photo
Suspected al Qaeda bombers toppled the towering minarets of Samarra's revered Shiite shrine on Wednesday, adding new provocation to old a year after the mosque's Golden Dome was destroyed.

The attack stoked fears of an upsurge in intra-Muslim violence. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government asked for U.S. troop reinforcements in Samarra, 60 miles north of here, and for a heightened U.S. military alert in the capital.

But within hours, three Sunni mosques south of Baghdad went up in flames, reports CBS News chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan, and attackers set fire to three more mosques in the capital itself.

Wednesday's Samarra attack also threatened to deepen Iraq's political crisis, as the 30-member bloc of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr immediately suspended its participation in parliament in protest.

The Golden Dome bombing in February 2006, at one of Iraqi Shiites' holiest sites, unleashed a bloodbath of reprisals — of Shiite death-squad murders of Sunnis, and Sunni bombing attacks on Shiites. At least 34,000 civilians died in last year's violence, the United Nations reported.

U.S. military sources say two nearly-simultaneous blasts rocked the shrine, leveling the minarets.

How the attackers evaded the Askariya shrine's guard force, strengthened considerably after the 2006 bombing, was a mystery.

The attack comes just a day before all U.S. combat forces for the troop surge are set to be in position, adds Logan. Al Qaeda is showing that it can still seize the initiative and undermine U.S. promises to provide security.

Al-Maliki quickly imposed an indefinite curfew on vehicle traffic and large gatherings in Baghdad, sending residents rushing to their cars to get out of the city before the curfew came into effect. Traffic on bridges out of the city was heavily congested.

Al-Maliki said policemen at the shrine were later detained for questioning in the investigation, and the Interior Ministry said members of "a terrorist group," in addition to the policemen, were arrested in Samarra and were being interrogated in connection with the shrine attack. It did not elaborate.

The Wednesday morning blasts shook the Tigris River-side city of Samarra, sending a cloud of dust billowing into the air, said Imad Nagi, a storeowner 100 yards from the shrine. "After the dust settled, I couldn't see the minarets any more. So, I closed the shop quickly and went home."

Said nearby blacksmith shop owner Farouq al-Samaraie: "I didn't expect there would be another explosion at al-Askariya mosque because it was already attacked last year."

Resident Abdul-Khali Mohammed predicted violence in the capital: "The Shiite militias now will seize this opportunity to kill Sunni families in Baghdad."

An indefinite curfew was immediately imposed on Samarra and, as Iraqi army and police reinforcements and U.S. troops poured in, the streets emptied by mid-afternoon, witnesses said.

A few hundred U.S. soldiers had been stationed around Samarra but had left shrine security to Iraqi forces.

It wasn't immediately clear how the attackers evaded the shrine's guard force, which had been strengthened after the 2006 bombing.

(AP Photo/Hamid Rashid)
The Askariya shrine's dome was destroyed on Feb. 22, 2006, in a bombing blamed on Sunni Muslim militants believed linked to al Qaeda. The mosque compound and minarets had remained intact but closed after that bombing.

In other developments:

  • A Pentagon report cites "the rise of high profile attacks" as one of the negative trends since the American troop surge began, reports CBS News national security correspondent David Martin. The overall level of violence in Iraq remains unchanged, running at more than 1000 attacks a week. The report does cite positive trends. The has been a decrease in sectarian killings, and U.S. military officers say there's been a decrease in the horrific market bombings in Baghdad due to the barriers and checkpoints erected around the capital. In response, the terrorists seem to have shifted their attacks to bridges – there have been 16 attacks since February.
  • The military is reporting three more American deaths in Iraq. One soldier was killed by a roadside bomb in eastern Baghdad on Monday. Another soldier died and two were wounded when their vehicle struck a bomb Tuesday in the southern part of the Iraqi capital. A Marine was killed Tuesday during combat operations in Anbar province.
  • Suspected Sunni insurgents bombed and badly damaged a span over the main north-south highway leading from Baghdad on Tuesday — the third bridge attack in as many days in an apparent campaign against key transportation arteries.
  • Fierce clashes broke out between joint U.S.-Iraqi forces and al Qaeda militants in the city Tuesday morning, leaving two Iraqi soldiers and six militants dead, police and hospital officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. The fighting also prevented university students at nearby colleges from taking their final exams, according to the provincial police center.
  • A suicide bomber blew himself up at a police station near the Iranian border, killing five Iraqi policemen and wounding 10, the town's mayor said. In the western city of Ramadi, a suicide bomber killed four policemen at a checkpoint, police said.