Attack Damages Revered Shiite Mosque in Iraq

Authorities appeal for calm as a bomb in the Iraqi city of Samarra heavily damages the golden dome of the Askiriya Shrine, a holy site for Shiite Muslims. Edward Wong, in Iraq for The New York Times, fills Madeleine Brand in on the latest details.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. In Iraq today, a huge explosion nearly completely destroyed one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites. In a moment, we'll hear more about the Askiriya Shrine in the Iraqi city of Samarra. That's north of Baghdad.

BRAND: But first, more on the attack itself, which has already spawned street protests and reprisals against Sunni mosques. We're joined from Baghdad by Edward Wong. He's a reporter at The New York Times.

And, Ed, first of all, tell us what happened at this Shiite shrine and how heavy the damage was.

Mr. EDWARD WONG (Reporter, The New York Times): The attack took place at around seven o'clock this morning from the information we've gathered. And it looks like insurgents who were dressed as police commandos went into the shrine area, handcuffed and tied up several shrine guards, and they proceeded to place explosives around the shrine.

The explosion was large enough to cause lots of damage in the shrine. It destroyed most of the shrine and completely destroyed the Golden Dome, which is the signature part of the shrine. And we're getting word from some Iraqi officials saying that they might have made some preliminary arrests in their investigation into the case.

BRAND: So, the alleged attackers were Sunnis dressed as Shiite policemen?

Mr. WONG: We don't know exactly what factor ethnicity the attackers were. We do know that those members of the most radical fringes of Sunni Islam have often attacked the Shiite shrines. So I think a lot of people are working under the assumption right now that the attackers were probably radical Sunni insurgents.

They were dressed policemen. And that doesn't mean they were dressed as Shiite policemen. The police forces are supposed to be mixed, although there is a predominance of Shiites in the police force.

BRAND: And I understand there have already been counterattacks.

Mr. WONG: That's right. We're hearing word from some Sunni leaders that maybe as many as two dozen or a little bit more and some members of Sunni mosques have been attacked across the country. A lot of Sunni leaders are trying to get people to stay calm. A lot of Shiite leaders are trying to get people to stay calm.

But there have been people pouring out into the streets in protest in some cities. And we've gotten reports, say, for example, from Bosra, that there was an Imam, a Sunni Imam, who was shot and taken to the hospital, for example, in one mosque and that some other Sunni mosques have been set ablaze. We don't have independent confirmation right now of exactly the number that have been attacked. We just know what Sunni leaders are saying.

BRAND: Well, this is the third day in a row that Shiite areas in Iraq have been attacked. And Sunnis are also being killed, some say by Shiite death squads. How would it be possible to create a coalition government amid all this sectarian violence?

Mr. WONG: It's hard. I think that the Americans are trying to put a lot of pressure, clearly the Americans are trying to put a lot of pressure, on the leaders to build a national unity government. And there is a lot of debate among the leaders about how to do this, among the Iraqi leaders. And a lot of it is acrimonious.

I think a lot of the politicians recognize that large-scale civil war is not in the best interest of the country. There is a low-level civil war going on here in Iraq right now and there's been one going on for quite a while. I think everyone recognizes that.

But I don't think anyone really wants an escalation, other than the most extreme elements of either the Sunnis, or the Shiites, or the Kurds, for that matter. So I think the leaders, even if they're acting on their own self-interests, would like to hold off any mass violence. And I think that will probably be the largest incentive for them to try and engage in talks.

BRAND: Edward Wong is a reporter for The New York Times in Baghdad. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. WONG: Thanks a lot, Madeleine.

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