Ahmadinejad: US, Israel attacked shrine

Says 'defeated Zionists and occupiers' intended to hit Shi'ites' emotions.

ahmadinejad 298 AP (photo credit: AP)
ahmadinejad 298 AP
(photo credit: AP)
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad blamed the United States and Israel on Thursday for the blowing up of a Shi'ite shrine's golden dome in Iraq, saying it was the work of "defeated Zionists and occupiers." Speaking to a crowd of thousands on tour of southwestern Iran, the president referred to the destruction of the Askariya mosque dome in Samarra on Wednesday, which the Iraqi government has blamed on insurgents. "They invade the shrine and bomb there because they oppose God and justice," Ahmadinejad said, referring to the US-led multinational force in Iraq. On Wednesday, terrorists dressed as members of Iraqi security forces detonated powerful bombs inside one of Shi'ite Islam's most holy shrines in Samarra, destroying most of the building and collapsing its famous golden dome. In reaction to the third major attack against Shi'ite targets in as many days, thousands of Shi'ites flooded into the streets around Iraq in protest, attacking Sunni mosques and killing at least two Sunni clerics. In Baghdad, Shi'ite militiamen dressed in black and carrying machine guns blocked roads and attacked Sunni mosques. Agence France Presse quoted an Iraqi police source as saying that 27 Sunni mosques were targeted in Baghdad. "Mahdi Army members are in the streets - I think they are preparing for attack," Jenan D. told The Jerusalem Post by phone from Baghdad's Jedida neighborhood, where one mosque was attacked. "People are staying in homes, trying to be safe. Schools sent students home early. My sister sent her husband to pick up their two small sons. There is a kind of confusion. We don't know what's happening tomorrow. We just have to wait and see," she said. Like Jenan, and families across the country, Ramia and her family stayed home before closed doors. "If the Iraqi [national] forces don't take control, this is the beginning of civil war," said Safa, 22, whose father is Sunni and mother is Shi'ite. "The [Shi'ite militias] have already taken control of parts of the city." The 1,200-year-old Ali al-Hadi mausoleum, also known as the Askariya shrine, is the fourth most important Shi'ite shrine in Iraq. The Interior Ministry said the Samarra attack was carried out by four men, one wearing a military uniform and three clad in black, who entered the mosque and detonated two bombs. The top of the dome collapsed into a crumbly mess, leaving just traces of gold showing through the rubble. Part of the shrine's tiled northern wall also was damaged. Police said Wednesday afternoon no casualties had been found as Iraqis picked through the debris, pulling out artifacts and copies of the the Koran. Thousands of demonstrators crowded near the shrine, waving Iraqi flags and Shi'ite religious banners. "This criminal act aims at igniting civil strife," said Mahmoud al-Samarie, a 28-year-old builder. "We demand an investigation so that the criminals who did this be punished. If the government fails to do so, then we will take up arms and chase the people behind this attack." The attack triggered more than 90 reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques throughout Iraq. The president warned that extremists were pushing the country toward civil war, as many Shi'ites lashed out at the United States as partly to blame. As the gold dome of the 1,200-year-old shrine lay in ruins, leaders on both sides called for calm. But the string of back-and-forth attacks seemed to push the country closer to all-out civil war than at any point in the three years since the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein. "We are facing a major conspiracy that is targeting Iraq's unity," said President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd. "We should all stand hand-in-hand to prevent the danger of a civil war." Many believe the attack on the shrine was meant to fan the flames of sectarian strife that have been increasing since the US invasion of Iraq. The result was widespread panic and increased fear of civil war between Sunnis and Shi'ites. "We all left work early, as soon as we heard what happened," Ramia Safa told The Jerusalem Post in a phone conversation from southern Baghdad. "People panicked and rushed to the supermarkets and the bakery to stock up on food. There were long lines, most of the shops had already closed," she said. Tradition says the Askariya shrine, which draws Shi'ite pilgrims from throughout the Islamic world, is near the place where the last of the 12 Shi'ite imams, Muhammad al-Mahdi, disappeared. Al-Mahdi, known as the "hidden imam," was the son and grandson of the two imams buried in the Askariya shrine. Shi'ites believe he is still alive and will return to restore justice to humanity. The golden dome was completed in 1905. "This is a very serious crime against a very important symbol," said Prof. Amatzia Baram, director of the Ezri Center for Iran and Gulf Studies at the University of Haifa. Baram predicted that there will be more anti-Sunni violence and anti-American violence, but that the majority of Shi'ites would remain on the sidelines. Nevertheless, he said, "This is a time of a great test. I don't think it will be a full-fledged civil war, but there will be increased violence. Yet [Iraqi Shi'ite leader Ayatollah Ali] Sistani will call for people to refrain from violence." US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the top American commander in Iraq also it was a "critical moment for Iraq" and called the bombings a deliberate attempt to create sectarian tension. They promised the US would contribute to the shrine's reconstruction. The new tensions come as Iraq's various factions are still unable to put together a government after the December 15 elections. The president said the brazen assault on the shrine seemed aimed at destroying the talks. No group claimed responsibility for the 6:55 a.m. assault on the shrine. Suspicion fell on Sunni extremist groups, and a government statement said "several suspects" had been detained. Shi'ite leaders in surrounding countries, including Iran's most influential cleric body, the Qom Shi'ite Seminary, condemned the attacks. Issam al-Hafaji, an Iraqi who is a former adviser to the UN special envoy to Iraq, told the Post that Iraqis will likely avoid civil war. "The encouraging thing is that most Iraqis are aware of the motives behind the attack - to cause a civil war, and [they] will not take part."