Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday put Baghdad and Samarra under an indefinite curfew in hopes of heading off a wave of sectarian violence, after insurgents staged an attack on the Askariya Shiite shrine that brought down the holy mosque's twin minarets.
After the attack in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, al-Maliki held an emergency meeting with Iraqi security advisors, the U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and the senior U.S. military commander in Iraq. The prime minister's office said al-Maliki asked that U.S. troops be sent into Samarra to help prevent a repeat of sectarian violence that marked last year's destruction of the mosque's Golden Dome.
The 2006 attack, also blamed on Sunni militants, sparked a major conflict that witnessed rampaging Shia death squads that killed hundreds of Sunnis.
Al-Maliki also put limits on vehicle traffic and large gatherings in Baghdad, Iraqi state television reported. And an Interior Ministry official said a national police force was ordered to move immediately to Samarra.
In Washington, the White House strongly condemned the attack.
Presidential spokesman Tony Snow said it's not yet clear who is responsible, but "it has all the marks of al-Qaida in the sense that it seems clearly an attempt to inflame sectarian tensions. They're literally trying to blow up Iraqi democracy," he said.
Snow said U.S. troops were not guarding the holy site because "there's a lot of sensitivity to Americans being on holy sites."
The Askariya shrine, one of the most sacred sites for Shia Muslims, is located in Samarra. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, appealed for calm after the attack, but his appeals went unheeded when the shrine was bombed last year.
Details of the attack are sketchy, but police said it happened about 9 a.m. and involved explosives. The two minarets that flanked the Golden Dome's ruins were destroyed. The powerful blasts shook the town, located 60 miles north of Baghdad, sending a cloud of dust billowing into the air.
"After the dust settled, I couldn't see the minarets any more. So, I closed the shop quickly and went home," said Imad Nagi, a storeowner 100 yards from the shrine.
It wasn't immediately clear how the attackers evaded the shrine's guard force, which was beefed up after the 2006 bombing.
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 (coalition) occupation."
The attack has been blamed on Sunni Muslim extremists.
Written by Deborah Tedford from NPR reports and The Associated Press