Protests and Violence Follow Bombing of Samarra Shrine

Iraq's Shiite Muslims are outraged by the attack on one of their holiest shrines, north of Baghdad. The destruction of the golden dome in Samarra set off protests and sectarian violence across the country.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Violence is spreading in Iraq a day after one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines was attacked and its Golden Dome was shattered. Dozens of bullet-riddled bodies were found overnight in Baghdad, and gunmen pulled 47 factory workers off their buses and killed them at a checkpoint just north of the capital this morning. Dozens of Sunni mosques have been attacked. In response, Sunni leaders have announced they are suspending negotiations with Shiites and Kurds over the formation of a national unity government.

NPR's Anne Garrels has more from Baghdad.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

Today's been declared a day of national mourning, and streets were largely empty as Iraqis feared further attacks by Shiite militias or possible reprisals by Sunni Arabs. Yesterday's bombing has brought Iraq closer than ever to outright civil war.

In the holy Shiite city of Najaf south of Baghdad loudspeakers yesterday informed residents about the bombing.

The mosques immediately broadcast chants usually reserved for the dead, emphasizing the gravity of the situation.

Najaf Shiites, including grown men, wept, calling on God for help. Shocked crowds gathered in the street outside the office of Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric, waiting for guidance. In a rare public appearance, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was shown on television consulting with other senior clerics.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign spoken)

GARRELS: A representative of Iraq Shiite leadership appealed publicly for peaceful demonstrations and restraint, but he warned if the government security forces cannot provide the necessary protection for the shrine in Samarra, believers will have to do it.

Samarra is a predominantly Sunni town, and the Sunni religious establishment had refused to allow Shiites to guard their shrine, pledging it would do it instead. Their failure to do so infuriated the growing crowds even more. Sahid Abbas al-Bouibra(ph), a 43-year old businessman, asked why there were so few guards.

Mr. SAHID ABBAS AL BOUIBRA (Shiite Businessman): (Foreign spoken)

GARRELS: To the nods of those around him he said, They have hit at the heart of our faith, adding, We have sat by long enough in silence.

The shrine is Samarra is one of the four major Shiite shrines in Iraq and at the heart of the split between the Shiites and the Sunnis. Two of the twelve imams revered by the Shiites as the true heirs to the prophet Mohammed are buried there, including the father of the last, known as the Hidden Imam or Mechti(ph). He is believed to have disappeared and will reemerge to signal Judgment Day.

Internet cafes were crammed with distraught Shiites trying to download images of the destroyed shrine. Thousands upon thousands began marching in the old city of Najaf. Calls by their religious and political leadership for restraint were met with frustration. Hazem Sheba(ph), a trader, said Shiites have been silent in the face of Sunni attacks for two long.

Mr. HAZEM SHEBA (Shiite Trader): (Foreign spoken)

GARRELS: If we don't respond to this, he said, we're good for nothing. Sheba said the Sunnis keep talking about brotherhood. What kind of brotherhood is this, he asked. Where will this all end?

The largest and most organized demonstrations were led by followers of young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, providing evidence they are a renewed force in Najaf, the city where they once battled U.S. troops. Sadr has recently gained considerable political influence, and his followers march by the thousands in lockstep.

While others blame Sunni Arabs for the bombing, they shifted responsibility to the U.S. Even the leader of Iraq's main Shiite political alliance has said Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq, bears some responsibility. Abdul Alziz al-Hakeem said Khalilzad's veiled threat on Monday to withdraw American support if Iraqis do not form a non-sectarian government helped promote the bombing.

In Najaf and other Shiite cities, local leaders are meeting to debate their next steps. They're under huge public pressure to send Shiite commandos to Samarra to provide protection for the shrine. Today the bodies of three Iraqi journalists were found near Samarra. They were reportedly killed as they tried to reach the shrine.

Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

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