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Blast destroys golden dome of Iraq shrine

A large explosion has caused heavy damage to the golden dome of Iraq's most famous Shiite shrine, sending protesters pouring into the streets.

india Updated: Feb 22, 2006 18:38 IST

A large explosion caused heavy damages to the golden dome of one of Iraq's most famous Shiite religious shrines on Wednesday, sending protesters pouring into the streets.

In Baghdad's Sadr City, thousands of Shiites, some brandishing Kalashnikov rifles, marched through the streets shouting anti-American slogans.

Following the blast, U.S. and Iraqi forces surrounded the shrine and began searching houses in the area. Five police officers responsible for protecting the mosque were taken into custody, said Col. Bashar Abdullah, chief of police commandoes in Samarra. Large protests erupted in Shiite parts of Baghdad and in cities throughout the Shiite heartland to the south.

This is the third major attack against Shiite targets in three days.

Meanwhile, Shiite leaders have called for calm, but scattered attacks have occurred against Sunni mosques in Baghdad.

U.S. and Iraqi forces have been deployed around major Sunni mosques in Baghdad, and 500 soldiers from Iraq's 6th Division have been sent to Sunni neighborhoods to prevent clashes between Shiites and Sunnis.

No group has claimed any responsibility for the early morning attack on the Askariya shrine in the city 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad. But suspicion has fallen on Sunni extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

Sources have said that four men wearing a military uniform and three men in black, entered the mosque early Wednesday and detonated two bombs, one of which collapsed the dome and damaged a large part of the northern wall of the shrine.

Police believe that people may be buried under the debris after the explosion but there have been no confirmed figures so far. The shrine contains the tombs of two revered Shiite imams, both descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, and is among Iraq's most sacred sites for Shiite Muslims.

The attack on such a major religious shrine has threatened to enflame sectarian passions, at a time when talks among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds about a new government have bogged down.

The country's most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has sent instructions to his followers forbidding attacks on Sunni mosques, especially the major ones in Baghdad. He has even called for seven days of mourning.

First Published: Feb 22, 2006 18:05 IST