TOPICS > Nation

Shiite Shrine Bombed

February 23, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: No one was killed in yesterday’s attack on the golden mosque in Samara, but more than 100 have since died across Iraq after the destruction of one of the most revered mosques of Shiite Islam.

Though Shia religious leaders called for restraint, more than one dozen Sunnis have been killed in one of the most violent rounds of sectarian clashes in Iraq since the American invasion three years ago. That violence came despite an appeal for peaceful protest by the country’s leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Sistani.

Today a Sunni clerical group, said it “points the finger of blame at certain Shiite religious authorities for calling for demonstrations,” but one Shia cleric said today the violence was political, not motivated by theology.

CLERIC (Translated): Why did they bomb the dome at this time? Why wasn’t it hit before? Beware. I swear by God, it is a political game not a religious one. Beware of sectarian war, through which they want to humiliate you and divide you.

SPENCER MICHELS: A U.S. military spokesman insisted civil war was not imminent.

MAJ. GEN. RICK LYNCH: We’re not seeing civil war igniting in Iraq; we’re seeing a confident, capable Iraqi government, using their capable security force to calm the storm.

SPENCER MICHELS: Modern Iraq has been largely secular since its founding in 1921, but there have been longstanding tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. While Sunni Arabs make up only about a fifth of Iraq’s 26 million people, they have long controlled the country’s political institutions, before and during the decades of Saddam Hussein’s rule and they also held much of the country’s wealth.

The Shia became a majority in the 19th century, but only since the ouster of Saddam Hussein have they begun to coalesce into unified political groups and parties, which in turn provoked anger and anxiety among many Sunni. Sunnis overwhelmingly boycotted elections for an interim government a year ago, paving the way for Shias to dominate.

Sunnis turned out in large numbers in December’s parliamentary elections, but Shiites maintained their political dominance. Politicians from Shia, Sunni and Kurdish groups have been negotiating since over a possible coalition government, and American officials have been strongly pushing for a national unity cabinet.

Most Kurds, another 20 percent of the population, are also Sunni but have a separate political agenda from the Sunni Arabs. But Sunni leaders have now broken off political talks with the Shiites and Kurds. They said they won’t return until the revenge attacks end.