Bombing of shrine sparks protests


A handful of Sunni mosques were attacked or burned today, but curfews and increased troop levels kept Iraq in relative calm a day after suspected al-Qaida bombers toppled the towering minarets of a prized Shiite shrine.

At least four people were reported killed in apparent retaliatory attacks in Basra, and a U.S. soldier said a dozen rockets or mortars rained down on Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone this afternoon. At least one fell outside Iraq's parliament, about 25 minutes before the U.S. State Department's No. 2 official was to visit a nearby American military building.

A senior U.S. military official, who requested anonymity because the information had not been released, said there were casualties among non-Americans.

Wednesday's attack on the Askariya shrine in Samarra, which was blamed on Sunni extremists, stoked fears of a surge in violence between Muslim sects. A bombing at the same mosque complex in February 2006 that destroyed the shrine's famed golden dome unleashed a bloodbath of reprisals.

The U.S. military said Iraqi forces had arrested the Emergency Service Unit commander and 12 policemen responsible for security at the shrine at the time of the explosions.

"We must condemn the bad actions of terrorists, and the sons of all tribes must come together and forgive each other," the military quoted Brig. Gen. Duraid Ali Ahmed Mohammad Azzawi, deputy commander for the National Police in Samarra, as saying.

Increased U.S. and Iraqi military patrols crisscrossed the streets of the capital, and additional checkpoints were set up along roads leading to Sadr City, witnesses said. Hundreds marched peacefully through the streets of the teeming neighborhood, a stronghold of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

Demonstrations also took place in Kut, Diwaniyah, Najaf and Basra &

all predominantly Shiite cities in the south.

A ban on vehicular traffic was expected to remain in place in Baghdad until Saturday.

In the mid-afternoon, explosions rocked central Baghdad, and smoke billowed over the American-guarded Green Zone, which houses the U.S. and British embassies, as well as the offices of the Iraqi government.

A witness inside the zone, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his job, said about half a dozen mortar rounds fell in the area.

The U.S. military said its radar detected five rockets falling inside the Green Zone. But a U.S. soldier, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, said at least a dozen rockets or mortars hit the area.

At least one rocket fell at a checkpoint manned by Georgian soldiers near the entrance to the Rasheed Hotel, about 150 yards from Iraq's parliament. Several military and plainclothes officials were gathered around the site, sifting through the rubble wearing rubber gloves.

The attack came less than a half hour before a news conference by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who was in Baghdad for meetings with U.S. and Iraqi officials. Speaking a few hundred yards away, Negroponte condemned the Samarra bombings as a "deliberate attempt by al-Qaida to sow dissent and inflame sectarian strife among the people of Iraq."

Attacks on Sunni mosques began within hours of Wednesday's bombings in Samarra.

Police in the southern city of Basra said today that four people were killed and six wounded in attacks on four mosques in the city, all involving rocket-propelled grenades that also damaged the buildings. Basra is Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.

Four Sunni mosques near Baghdad also were attacked or burned within several hours of the Samarra bombings, police said.

One of those mosques, which had been only partly destroyed, was a target again today, police said. Around 4 a.m., attackers broke into the Hateen mosque in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, and planted bombs inside.

Flames from a huge explosion destroyed most of the building, and a woman and child in a nearby apartment were wounded, an Iskandariyah police officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Gunmen also tried to storm the nearby al-Mustafa mosque, and exchanged fire with guards before Iraqi soldiers arrived and stopped them, police said. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

In Mahaweel, 35 miles south of Baghdad, gunmen opened fire on the al-Basheer mosque at dawn, police said. They forced guards to leave, then set fire to the mosque, a local police officer said on the same condition of anonymity. The building was partly damaged, he said.

The Samarra site contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams &

Ali al-Hadi, who died in 868, and his son Hassan al-Askari, 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 restore justice to humanity.

Also today, the U.S. military said it detained 25 suspects in raids against al-Qaida in Iraq in the past two days. One taken into custody near Tarmiyah, 30 miles north of Baghdad, was believed to be a close associate of Omar al-Baghdadi, who heads the al-Qaida front group Islamic State in Iraq.

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