BAGHDAD – Iraq’s government on Wednesday imposed a three-day curfew throughout the country and braced for violence after two thunderous explosions collapsed the remaining minarets of a prominent Shiite shrine whose bombing 15 months ago triggered an orgy of sectarian reprisals that continue to this day.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki angrily summoned the ministers of defense and interior to his office and ordered the detention of the mixed group of Iraqi soldiers and police who were on guard at the time of the explosions.
Officials close to al-Maliki said the prime minister had heard two weeks ago that an attack on the mosque might be imminent, but that the two ministers, who oversee the army and the police, had assured him that everything was under control.
Police attributed the explosions that toppled the minarets to incoming mortar rounds, but witnesses said the blasts came from inside the mosque compound and al-Maliki aides said they did not believe the police account. A U.S. military official told CNN he believed the bombing was an inside job.
The shrine, known as the al Askariya Mosque, has held a special place in the iconography of Iraqi violence since its gold dome was destroyed in a huge explosion Feb. 22, 2006. That explosion fueled what was already a rising trend of reprisal killings between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
Hundreds of Iraqis were killed in the days after the bombing. More than a hundred Sunni mosques in Baghdad were attacked and burned, sending smoke throughout the city, and truckloads of militiamen waving Mahdi Army flags and rocket-propelled grenade launchers took to the streets.
In comparison, the response to Wednesday’s blast was muted. Gunmen sprayed bullets at four Sunni mosques in the southern port city of Basra, and Shiite militiamen and Sunni guards battled at a fifth.
In Iskandiriya, south of Baghdad, three Sunni mosques were bombed, witnesses said. Provincial police did not confirm or deny the reports. In Baghdad, Sunni mosques were attacked in the Jihad and Zaiyuna neighborhoods, according to witnesses.
Al-Maliki traveled to Samarra with Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, to survey the damage. He said the attack came two days before a contract was to be signed to rebuild the shrine.
“By God’s will we will rebuild the honorable shrine,” al-Maliki said in front of the rubble of the destroyed holy site. “I call upon all Iraqis, Sunnis and Shiites, to assume responsibility … and don’t allow space for those that want to start a war that no one will win.”
Al-Maliki’s calls for calm were joined by similar pleas from a variety of Iraqi and American officials. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite religious figure, called for “believers to be patient and control themselves and to avoid revenge attacks.”