BAGHDAD – Suspected al-Qaida insurgents on Wednesday destroyed the two minarets of the Askariya Shiite shrine in Samarra, authorities reported, in a repeat of a 2006 bombing that shattered its famous Golden Dome and unleashed a wave of retaliatory sectarian violence that still bloodies Iraq.
Police said the attack at about 9 a.m. involved explosives and brought down the two minarets, which had flanked the dome’s ruins. No casualties were reported.
The attack immediately stirred fears of a new explosion of Sunni-Shiite bloodshed. There are close ties between al-Qaida and some Iraqi Sunni militants. State television said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki quickly imposed an indefinite curfew on vehicle traffic and large gatherings in Baghdad as of 3 p.m. Wednesday.
Just before the curfew was to take hold, Shiite militiamen carrying light weapons fanned out across Jihad, a mixed neighborhood in western Baghdad, police said. No violence was immediately reported.
The 30-member bloc loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr suspended its membership in parliament Wednesday, saying they will stay away from the 275-seat house until the government takes “realistic” steps to rebuild the Askariya shrine.
The suspension, announced in a statement by the bloc, is likely to weaken al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government and delay the adoption of a series of laws needed to build national reconciliation to reduce violence in Iraq.
Al-Maliki met with the U.S. commander in Iraq to ask that American reinforcements be sent into Samarra to help head off new violence in the flashpoint city 60 miles north of Baghdad, al-Maliki’s office said.
Al-Maliki’s Dawa Party issued a statement blaming al-Qaida for attempting to “burn Iraq with the fire of sectarian strife” and calling for an immediate investigation.
“We call upon our Iraqi people to exercise self-restraint and not be dragged into reactions like those planned by the killers,” it said.
A U.S. military official in northern Iraq confirmed that the towers were destroyed, and said Samarra remained calm by early afternoon Wednesday. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information.
The powerful blasts shook the town, 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.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how the attackers evaded the shrine’s guard force, which had been strengthened after the 2006 bombing. A senior al-Maliki adviser said policemen at the shrine were detained Wednesday and would be questioned as part of an investigation ordered by the prime minister.
After last year’s bombing, the mosque was guarded by about 60 Federal Protection Service forces and 25 local Iraqi police who kept watch on the perimeter, according to Samarra city officials.
The U.S. military released a statement saying “the Iraqi police on site described hearing two near-simultaneous explosions coming from inside of the mosque compound, but they did not see any attackers in the vicinity.”
The Askariya shrine’s dome was destroyed on Feb. 22, 2006, in a bombing blamed on Sunni Muslim militants believed linked to al-Qaida. The mosque compound and minarets had remained intact but closed after that bombing.
Iraq has been plagued by violence since the war started in 2003, but the carefully orchestrated 2006 explosion, in which suspected al-Qaida assailants wearing uniforms set off two bombs, touched a nerve. The bombing unleashed Shiite militias, who ignored appeals for calm and instead attacked Sunni clerics and mosques. Nearly 140 people were killed the next day.
In the aftermath of Wednesday’s explosions, police in the shrine area began firing into the air to keep people away, witnesses said, and Iraqi army and police reinforcements poured in. A national police force under command of a major general was ordered to move immediately to Samarra, said an Interior Ministry official.
Black banners were hoisted outside the Najaf residence of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who called for a three-day mourning period to mark the minarets’ destruction and criticized the government for not doing enough to protect the site.
Al-Sadr also called for peaceful demonstrations following the blasts “to show that the only enemy of Iraq is the occupation and that’s why everyone must demand its departure or scheduling its presence,” according to statement read by Salah al-Obeidi, one of al-Sadr’s top aides.
Al-Sadr uses the word “occupation” to refer to the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Meanwhile, some 200 protesters marched to the house of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, denouncing Wednesday’s bombing. They carried pictures of the Iranian-born cleric and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of Iraq’s largest Shiite party and a close ally of al-Sistani.
Iran, which has been accused of funding and arming Shiite militias in Iraq, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blamed U.S. forces for failing to prevent the mosque attack, and threatened to halt regional cooperation to stop Iraq’s spiraling violence.
“You, by supporting theses activities, will be cornered,” Iranian state television quoted Ahmadinejad as addressing the “occupiers of Iraq.”
Police imposed an indefinite curfew on the Sunni city, located 60 miles north of Baghdad, amid fears the bombing might further inflame the sectarian hatreds that swept Baghdad and other areas of Iraq in the months that followed the destruction of the shrine’s dome.
The execution-style killings largely blamed on Shiite militias had begun to decline in February, at the start of a major U.S.-Iraqi security push to pacify Baghdad, but the numbers have seen a recent rise as the bombings continued.
But while the numbers of people killed are down in Baghdad, violence has been on the rise elsewhere in Iraq after militants fled the security operation.
The Askariya mosque contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams — Ali al-Hadi, who died in 868, and his son Hassan Askariya, who died in 874. Both are descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, and Shiites consider them to be among his successors.
The shrine also is near the place where the 12th imam, 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 will return to Earth restore justice to humanity.
In the immediate aftermath of that bombing, U.S. officials and others had promised to help rebuild the landmark dome, completed in 1905, but no rebuilding has begun.
In other violence Wednesday, Iraqi police said suspected militants blew up part of a bridge in northern Iraq in the country’s fourth bridge attack in as many days.
Wednesday’s bridge attack targeted the Zikaytoon overpass southwest of Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad. Suspected insurgents planted explosives under the bridge, and the blast went off around 6 a.m., said police Brig. Sarhat Qader. Part of the bridge was destroyed, but no one was injured, Qader said.
Also Wednesday, 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.
The state-owned al-Sabah newspaper issued a news release saying that its editor-in-chief, Flayeh Wadi Mijdab, had been kidnapped. Unknown gunmen ambushed Mijdab in eastern Baghdad on Wednesday morning as he was heading to work, police said. His 25-year-old son and driver were left behind, police added.