BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq on Wednesday accused al Qaeda militants, including four Saudis, of carrying out the Feb. 22 bombing of a revered Shi’ite shrine that triggered a major upsurge in sectarian violence.
National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said Iraqi Haitham al-Badri, the al Qaeda leader in Salahaddin province, masterminded the attack in the town of Samarra north of Baghdad.
Badri was in a charge of an al Qaeda in Iraq unit consisting of two Iraqis, four Saudis and a Tunisian identified as Abu Qudama, Rubaie told a news conference.
Abu Qudama was wounded several days ago in Dhuluiya, north of Baghdad, in clashes with U.S. and Iraqi forces in which 15 other foreign militants were killed. “They were trying to storm an Iraqi army checkpoint,” Rubaie said. He said Abu Qudama confessed to the bombing of the shrine.
“He confessed that he killed hundreds of Iraqi people and hundreds of police,” he said.
The Feb. 22 bombing of the al-Askari shrine that destroyed its famous golden dome set off reprisals and pushed Iraq closer than ever to the brink of open sectarian conflict. Iraqi and U.S. officials accuse al Qaeda of trying to spark a civil war.
Sectarian bloodshed kills some 30-50 people in Baghdad alone every day, and 150,000 people have been displaced since the Samarra attack.
Iraqi and U.S. officials say the death of al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. air strike on June 7 dealt a blow to the militant group, but no one expects it to end violence any time soon.
Zarqawi’s replacement, believed to be Abu Ayyub al-Masri, has vowed to carry on with a campaign of suicide bombings, shootings and kidnappings.
Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki unveiled a national reconciliation plan on Sunday aimed at tackling sectarian violence and defusing the Sunni Arab insurgency. But it offered no details on how he would unite Iraq’s divided ethnic groups and sects.
Maliki has said that a number of armed groups have contacted him over his reconciliation efforts, an aide said on Wednesday, confirming a report on state television.
The aide said more details would be provided on Iraqiya television later in the day. Aides to the premier said this week that seven Sunni insurgent groups had contacted him seeking dialogue, but he himself has not commented publicly.
The militant Sunni group Army of Ansar al-Sunna, affiliated with al Qaeda, issued an Internet statement denouncing Maliki’s plan.
“Oh intellectuals, spiritual leaders, youth and the general public, we must reject any external ideas and suspect principles even if they are disguised as the truth,” it said.