A powerful bomb shattered the golden dome at one of Iraq's most revered Shiite shrines Wednesday, setting off a day of sectarian fury in which mobs formed across Iraq to chant for revenge and attacked dozens of Sunni mosques.
The bombing, at the Askariya Shrine, wounded no one but left the mosque's famous golden dome in ruins. The shrine is central to one of the most dearly held beliefs of Shiite Islam, and the bombing, coming after two days of bloody attacks that have left dozens of Shiite civilians dead, ignited a nationwide outpouring of rage and panic that seemed to bring Iraq closer than ever to open civil conflict.
"This is as 9/11 in the United States," said Adel Abdul Mahdi, a Shiite who is one of Iraq's two vice presidents.
Shiite militia members flooded the streets of Baghdad, firing rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns at Sunni mosques while Iraqi army soldiers who had been called out to stop the violence stood nearby. By the day's end, mobs had struck or destroyed 27 Sunni mosques in the capital alone, killing three imams and kidnapping a fourth, Interior Ministry officials said. In all, at least 15 people were killed in related violence across the country.
Thousands of grief-stricken people in Samarra crowded into the shrine's courtyard after the bombing, some weeping and kissing the fallen stones, others angrily chanting, "Our blood and souls we sacrifice for you, imams."
Iraq's major political and religious leaders issued urgent appeals for restraint, and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari called for a three-day mourning period.
Reflecting the seriousness of the crisis, the reclusive Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani allowed himself to be shown on television, meeting with other religious authorities in the holy city of Najaf in his first public appearance since the Shiite uprising there in August 2004.
Sistani later issued a statement calling on Shiites to stage peaceful demonstrations, and "not to be dragged into committing acts that would only please the enemies, namely, the sectarian sedition."
But Sistani also warned that if government security forces prove unable to halt attacks, "then the believers themselves are able to do this, with God's help."
Most Iraqi leaders attributed the attack to terrorists bent on exploiting sectarian rifts, but some also blamed the United States for failing to prevent it. Even the leader of Iraq's main Shiite political alliance said he thought Zalmay Khalilzad, the American ambassador to Iraq, bore some responsibility. The Shiite leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, said Khalilzad's veiled threat on Monday to withdraw American support if Iraqis cannot form a nonsectarian government helped provoke the bombing.
"This declaration gave a green light for these groups to do their operation," Hakim said.
The attack began at 7 a.m., when a dozen men dressed in paramilitary uniforms entered the shrine and handcuffed four guards who were sleeping in a back room, a spokesman for the provincial governor's office said. The attackers then placed a bomb in the dome and detonated it, collapsing most of the structure and heavily damaging an adjoining wall.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack.
Samarra's population is mostly Sunni Arab, and it was a haven for insurgents until 2004, when American and Iraqi troops carried out a major operation to retake the city and the Golden Mosque from guerrilla fighters. But insurgents have filtered back, and American troops in and around the city are now regularly attacked.
Shops closed across the country as mobs filled the streets. In Kirkuk, about 1,000 Shiites marched in the streets, chanting slogans against America, members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and Takfiris, a word used to describe militant Islamists who denounce other Muslims as infidels. Similar demonstrations broke out across the country.
In the southern Shiite city of Basra, Shiite militia members damaged at least two Sunni mosques, killing an imam, and launched an attack on the headquarters of Iraq's best-known Sunni Arab political party.
Later, the Basra police took 10 foreign Arabs who had been jailed in connection with terrorist attacks from their cells and summarily shot them dead.
Information from the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post was used in this report.
FACTS ABOUT THE ASKARIYA SHRINE
The Askariya shrine in Samarra is among Iraq's most sacred sites for Shiite Muslims, drawing pilgrims from around the world.
It contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams, Ali al-Hadi who died in 868, and his son, Hassan al-Askari, who died in 874. Both are descendants of the prophet Mohammed.
The shrine is near the place where the last of the 12 Shiite imams, Mohammed al-Mahdi, disappeared. Mahdi, known as the "hidden imam," was the son and grandson of the two imams buried in the shrine. Shiites believe he is still alive and will return to restore justice to humanity.
It was built by Caliph al-Mutasim in 836. The landmark golden dome was completed in 1905.