Thursday, February 23, 2006

Wave of Mayhem Imperils Iraq - Wave of Mayhem Imperils Iraq's Shaky Unity: "Yesterday's attack was the third major assault on Shiite targets in as many days -- exacerbates concerns that Iraq is edging further along the road toward civil war. Early yesterday, four men entered the 1,200-year-old Askariya mosque in Samarra and set off bombs that heavily damaged the shrine's gilded dome.


• The Askariya shrine 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 Muhammad and Shiites consider them to be among his successors. The landmark golden dome was completed in 1905 under Muzaffar al-Din Shah.

• The shrine is near the place where the last of the 12 Shiite imams, Mohammed al-Mahdi, disappeared. Mr. Mahdi, known as the "hidden imam," was the son and grandson of the two imams buried in the Askariya shrine. Shiites believe he is still alive and will return to restore justice to humanity.

• The shrine is in Samarra, one of four Shiite holy cities in Iraq, which has majestic ruins stretching along the eastern bank of the Tigris river.

• It was built by Caliph al-Mutasim in 836 to replace Baghdad as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, and abandoned by Caliph Al-Mutamid in 892.

• Samarra also is the site of the ninth century Great Mosque with a 170-foot spiral minaret that is one of the most recognized landmarks in Iraq. The town also holds remains of the residence built by Caliph Al-Mutasim in 835.

Shiite religious parties won 130 seats in the December parliamentary elections. A Kurdish alliance got 53 seats, while the major Sunni blocs won 55 seats, sharply increasing the group's political representation after it had boycotted the prior election. But while the Sunnis, emboldened by their improved standing, are eager for more government positions, the Shiites remain reluctant to share power.

The bombing threatens to deepen this rift. Shiite protesters took to the streets in large numbers, and dozens of Sunni mosques across Iraq were attacked. Assailants in the predominantly Shiite city of Basra in the south fired on the local headquarters of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a moderate Sunni political group. Meanwhile, political and religious leaders scrambled to prevent the violence from spinning out of control: Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, instructed followers to refrain from targeting Sunni mosques, while U.S. and Iraqi forces blocked approach roads to Baghdad's main Sunni place of worship."

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