13 June 2007

First, the Dome, then the Minarets

photo credit: Chris Hondros/Getty Images, left, and Hameed Rasheed/AP

From today's New York Times-

June 13, 2007
Minarets on Shiite Shrine in Iraq Destroyed in Attack

One of Iraq’s most sacred Shiite shrines, the Imam al-Askari mosque in Samarra, was attacked and severely damaged again today, just over a year after the previous attack on the site unleashed a tide of national sectarian bloodletting.
Angry demonstrations erupted in Samarra following the attack, which destroyed the mosque’s two minarets. Security forces fired in the air, and the Iraqi government announced a curfew in Baghdad starting at 3 p.m. today.
Shiite leaders called for calm. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, condemned the bombing, but appealed to Iraqis to show restraint.
It was unclear who carried out the attack in the predominantly Sunni town about 60 miles north of Baghdad. Iraqi security forces secured the area around the mosque and were investigating the cause of the explosion, the American military said. Iraqi police reported hearing two nearly simultaneous explosions coming from inside the mosque compound at around 9 a.m. today.
The official Iraqia television station reported that local officials said that two mortar rounds were fired at the two minarets.
The shrine was badly damaged in the February 2006 attack by Sunni insurgents, but the destruction of the remaining two minarets is expected to have powerful symbolic importance to Iraqis.
Radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr called for peaceful demonstrations and a three-day mourning period to mark the shrine’s destruction.
Senior American military commanders in Iraq have said recently that they feared just such an attack on a Shiite shrine to refocus Sunni attention on the country’s struggle between Shiites and Sunnis.
But they expected that if such an attack did occur, it would most likely come at one of Iraq’s three other most-sacred Shiite sites, not the al-Askari shrine, which was already badly damaged.
Since the attack in 2006, the shrine had been under the protection of local — predominantly Sunni — guards. But American military and Iraqi security officials had recently become concerned that the local unit had been infiltrated by Al Qaeda forces in Iraq.
A move by the Ministry of Interior in Baghdad over the last few days to bring in a new guard unit — predominantly Shiite — may have been linked to the attack today.
Speaking on Al Jazeera television, Abdul Sattar Abdul Jabbar, a prominent Sunni cleric, said the new guards had arrived at the shrine shouting sectarian slogans that may have provoked local Sunnis, in a sign that the attack was already being depicted as sectarian.
Gunfire was reported around the mosque last night, which may have been linked to the change of guards.
Attacks on Shiite holy sites have increased in the last two months and tensions in Samarra have also risen recently.
The attack in 2006 ravaged the mosque’s dome, which had been the defining feature of the shrine.
Before that attack, more than a million Shiites streamed into the mosque each year, visiting the graves of the 10th and 11th Imams. They also came to honor Muhammad al-Mahdi, who became the 12th Imam when he was only 5 years old, in A.D. 872.
Shiites believe that it was at the shrine that the Mahdi was put into a state of divine hiddenness by God to protect his life. Shiites believe that the Mahdi will return at the end of days, at a time of chaos and destruction, to deliver perfect justice.

John F. Burns and Damien Cave contributed reporting from Baghdad. Employees of The New York Times contributed reporting from elsewhere in Iraq.


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