February 22, 2006
By EDWARD WONG
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Insurgents dressed as police commandos detonated powerful explosives on Wednesday morning inside one of Shiite Islam’s most sacred shrines, destroying most of the building, located in the volatile town of Samarra, and prompting thousands of Shiites to flood into streets across the country in protest.
Photo: Residents looked on at what remained of the shrine after the explosion. (Hameed Rasheed/AP)
The golden-domed shrine housed the tombs of two revered leaders of Shiite Islam and symbolized the place where the Imam Mahdi, a mythical, messianic figure, disappeared from this earth. Believers in the imam say he will return when the apocalypse is near, to cleanse the world of its evils.
The blast took place at about 7 a.m. and shook the city of Samarra, a Sunni-dominated area that is nevertheless sacred to Shiites. The gunmen entered the shrine and handcuffed guards in the building, then set about planting the explosives, an official of the provincial governorate said. There were no immediate reports of casualties, but the golden dome was entirely destroyed, as well as three-quarters of the structure.
Samarra has long been one of the most violent cities in Iraq, and American forces there have struggled to contain a virulent Sunni-led insurgency. The American military has tried various offensives, only to have insurgents regroup and carry out further strikes. The Americans have also had little success in propping up Iraqi security forces in the town.
Shiites protestors took to the streets shortly after the explosion. In Baghdad, militiamen loyal to radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who is a fervent believer in the prophecy of the Imam Mahdi, drove through the streets of Sadr City with Kalashnikovs, many accusing the Americans of carrying out the attack.
In the holy city of Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, called for a period of mourning and asked that government offices be closed for the next three days.
The attack came after two days of vicious bloodshed and political turmoil. The Iraqi prime minister on Tuesday angrily denounced the growing American pressure to form an inclusive government, as a car bomb in a bustling market here killed at least 21 people and wounded dozens more, most of them women and children.
The explosion took place in the evening, with shoppers crowded into the Abu Cheer market on a Shiite block of southern Baghdad. Many women in flowing black robes had brought their children along. Hospital wards quickly filled with wailing victims, wiping blood from their faces or clutching limbs shredded by shrapnel.
"I noticed that a woman had lost her hand because of the explosion, and many of the bodies were burned," said Zuhair Ali Mudhair, 18, as he sat on the edge of a gurney in Yarmouk Hospital, with cloth bandages wrapped around his head and arm, and dried blood on his T-shirt. "Some of the kids were completely burned from the fire."
The violence on Monday, which killed at least 26 people, and the marketplace bombing and other attacks on Tuesday, which killed 28 people, signaled that a period of relative calm during political talks had come to an abrupt end.
Negotiations over the formation of a new government are taking place slowly and with much acrimony. Parties representing Shiite Arabs, Sunni Arabs and Kurds are jockeying for control of various ministries and making demands on several crucial issues, like changing the makeup of the population around the northern oil fields.
The volatility of the political process was exacerbated Monday by suggestions from Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq, that the United States might decrease financial help to a government that excluded some sects and ethnic groups.
His comments were a veiled attack on Shiite leaders, some of whom have been accused of widening sectarian rifts in the past year by supporting government death squads that have kidnapped, tortured and killed Sunni Arabs.
On Tuesday, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the prime minister and a conservative Shiite, scoffed at Mr. Khalilzad's remarks. "When we are asked, 'Do you want the government to be sectarian?' our answer is 'no,' " Mr. Jaafari said. "Not because the U.S. ambassador says this and warns us, but because this is our policy."
He added, "We think that sovereignty means no one interferes in our affairs."
Mr. Jaafari's comments came at a news conference shortly after Iraqi leaders met with Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary. Mr. Straw, too, demanded that the Iraqis form an inclusive government. The Bush administration wants a significant number of Sunni Arabs chosen for cabinet positions, in the hope that political engagement will help defuse the Sunni-led insurgency.
A two-thirds vote by the 275-member Parliament, the National Assembly, is needed to form the government, and the Shiite and Kurdish blocs could muster enough votes to shut out the main Sunni Arab parties if they persuaded some independent legislators or just a handful of Sunnis to vote with them.
Mr. Straw expressed disapproval of that strategy on Tuesday. "We had the elections on Dec. 15," he said after meeting with Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president and a Kurd. "We've now had the final accredited results. What they show is that no party, no ethnic or religious grouping, can dominate government in Iraq."
Mr. Straw also noted that an investigation was under way into an episode in January 2004 in which British soldiers apparently abused young, unarmed Iraqi men. The beatings took place in the southern city of Amara during a protest and were made public earlier this month when a British newspaper released a videotape taken by a soldier.
Mr. Talabani said at the news conference with Mr. Straw that the Sunnis and Kurds were still discussing whether to form a supervisory council that would oversee the running of the government, operating parallel to the cabinet and acting as a check on the power of the Shiites. Shiite leaders have vociferously rejected the idea. "I think there is a serious and brotherly discussion, and I expect we will reach a result soon," Mr. Talabani said of the proposed council.
Iraqi politicians and American officials say they do not expect a government to be formed until the spring.
The marketplace explosion on Tuesday evening took place in the dangerous neighborhood of Dora, where criminal gangs operate at will and sectarian killings occur daily. A police commander said the explosives were in a pickup truck parked in a Shiite area.
Earlier, four Iraqi Army recruits were killed by gunmen in the northern city of Kirkuk. A roadside bomb killed two Iraqi commandos and wounded four in Baghdad in the afternoon, and another concealed bomb killed a policeman in the morning, an Interior Ministry official said. A civilian was killed by a bomb on Monday night in Iskandariya, south of Baghdad, the official said.
The police in Dora found a dead body on Tuesday morning with a letter in his pocket that said, "This is the destiny of the terrorists who kill innocents."
Qais Mizher and Mona Mahmoud contributed reporting for this article.