U.S. suspects 'inside job' in Samara mosque bombing
Published: Wednesday June 13, 2007
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Suspected Sunni insurgents blew up the two minarets of a revered Shiite shrine in the Iraqi town of Samarra on Wednesday, 15 months after its bombing by Al-Qaeda ignited brutal sectarian clashes.

The morning destruction of the gold-covered minarets of the Al-Askari mosque in the largely Sunni town north of Baghdad raised fears of a resurgence in intercommunal violence, with curfews imposed in Samarra and Baghdad.

"The explosions that led to the collapse of the two minarets were due to bombs planted at their bases," said Lieutenant Omar Ghalib from Samarra police.

An AFP correspondent at the site said that Iraqi and US forces were heavily deployed in the town as US helicopters hovered above.

"A team of explosives experts has been dispatched to the shrine," said local government spokesman Ali al-Juboori.

The US military said the "minarets at the golden mosque compound were destroyed around 9:00 am (0500 GMT) Wednesday."

"The cause of the explosions is being investigated by the Iraqi police at the scene. No casualties have been reported."

Sheikh Saleh al-Haidiri, head of the Shiite endowment administrative body responsible for Shiite shrines in Iraq, said the minarets, which had towered more than 30 metres (100 feet) over Samarra, were blown up by "terrorists."

"It is a terrorist attack ... the second one against the shrine," Haidiri said in Baghdad. "It is a terrorist attack aimed at sparking sectarian violence."

Iraq's radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called for calm and a three-day mourning.

Wednesday's attack was a grim echo of the February 22, 2006 bombing of the shrine by Al-Qaeda militants which triggered brutal Shiite-Sunni bloodletting that continues to this day and has left tens of thousands of people dead.

That attack destroyed the golden dome of one of the world's holiest Shiite shrines where Shiites believe their 12th Imam, a messianic and mystical figure, disappeared in the 9th century AD.

On Wednesday, a witness said the two minarets fell within minutes of each other.

"I was near the shrine when I heard big explosions that sent a thick cloud of dust in the sky covering the entire area," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"I quickly ran to the street from where I could see the shrine clearly. I saw one of the minarets was down. Seven minutes later as I was watching the shrine, another explosion occurred and the second minaret came crumbling down."

The area had been heavily fortified since last year's attack, but according to the witness there had been a row between the security forces on Tuesday.

"Yesterday, a new batch of security forces came from Baghdad to take over shrine security from the previous force and there was a row between the two groups which saw some exchanges of fire too," he said, adding that the new force had eventually taken over security.

Sadr blamed the US-led "occupation" for the attack.

"Let the Iraqi people be aware that no Sunni has attacked the shrine, but it is the occupation's hidden hand which wants bad things to happen to us," Sadr said in a statement issued by his Najaf office.

"Let us organise protests to show everybody that the enemy of Iraq is occupation."

Iraq's revered Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani also condemned the "heinous crime and called for peace and urged the people not to follow the path of sectarianism," his office said.

For nearly 15 months now, Iraq has been battling the fiery sectarian conflict which has also delayed the prospect of the US withdrawing its troops from the violence-plagued country.

Instead, President George W. Bush dispatched additional troops to Iraq to curb the communal violence.

The epicentre of the sectarian violence has been in Baghdad where tit-for-tat attacks have killed thousands.

A massive crackdown was launched in February in Baghdad by US and Iraqi forces to curb the bloodshed.

Despite the military clampdown, suspected Sunni insurgents have continued to carry out attacks on Shiites, while dozens of bodies of Sunni Arabs are found every week across the capital's streets allegedly killed by Shiite militias.

On Wednesday, violence continued elsewhere in Iraq, including a suicide bombing that killed five Kurdish policemen in the largely Kurdish Shiite town of Mandeli, northeast of Baghdad, police said.

Insurgents also carried out yet another attack on Iraq's infrastructure, blowing up a key bridge connecting the northern cities of Tikrit and Kirkuk and forcing commuters to travel by boat.

(with wire sources)

The following video is from CNN's American Morning, broadcast on June 13.