BAGHDAD (AP) – Suspected al-Qaeda 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, blamed on Sunni Muslim extremists, immediately stirred fears of a new explosion of Sunni-Shiite bloodshed. 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.
The Iraqi leader also 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.
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.
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.
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr 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.”
Al-Sadr uses the word “occupation” to refer to the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Al-Maliki, in his meeting with U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, asked that U.S. troops in Baghdad be put on a higher alert to head off any upsurge in Sunni-Shiite bloodshed, said an al-Maliki aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The aide and other officials spoke on condition of anonymity, either because of the sensitivity of the matter or because they were not authorized to share the information.
The U.S. command had no immediate comment on such military moves.
The official close to al-Maliki, citing intelligence reports, said the attack was likely the work of al-Qaeda, whose militants have recently moved into Samarra from surrounding areas.
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.
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 United Nations warned earlier this week that the “situation in Iraq remains precarious.”
“Insurgent attacks persist and civilian casualties continue to mount,” the report read. “While there was a brief lull in the level of sectarian violence early in the reporting period, it now appears that militia forces are resuming their activities, including targeted killings and kidnappings,” the U.N. said in a report on Iraq covering the period from early March to early June.
After Wednesday’s bombing, al-Maliki, a Shiite, went into urgent talks with Saleh al-Haidari, chairman of the Shiite Waqf, the government agency that looks after Shiite mosques and religious schools, according to officials in al-Maliki’s office.
He later met with the interior and defense ministers, along with other top advisers and security commanders to discuss measures to contain any possible explosion of sectarian violence following the bombing, al-Maliki’s office said.
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.
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.
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.
Iraq has been plagued by violence since the war started in 2003, but the carefully orchestrated 2006 explosion, in which suspected al-Qaeda 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 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.