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Bombing of Shi'ite Shrine in Iraq Sparks Mass Protests


A bomb attack has blown the dome off one of Iraq's most sacred Shi'ite shrines, sparking sectarian reprisals and an appeal from Iraq's president to prevent the country from sliding into civil war.

Authorities say men dressed as police tied up guards at the Askariya shrine in Samarra before setting off explosive charges and destroying its 100-year-old golden dome.

Shi'ite Muslims took to the streets of Samarra, Baghdad and other towns in protest. Dozens of Sunni mosques were attacked and six people, including three clerics, were killed.

Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, declared seven days of mourning and urged protesters to refrain from violence. The country's leading Sunni Arab religious body also condemned the attack on the shrine.

President Bush condemned the bombing and warned a violent reaction would contribute to what those behind the attack sought to achieve. He added that the United States will work with Iraq to restore the mosque to its former glory.

Iraq's Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafar, a Shi'ite, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, called for calm and Muslim unity. Mr. Talabani added that Iraqis should stand together to prevent the danger of a civil war.

Iraqi authorities say there were no known deaths from the blast at the mosque. They say several suspects are in custody.

Insurgents have attacked Shi'ite targets in Iraq for three straight days. At least 32 people were killed in separate attacks in predominantly Shi'ite areas of Baghdad on Monday and Tuesday.

The Askariya shrine draws pilgrims from around the world. It contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams, Ali al-Hadi and his son, Hassan al-Askari, who died in 874. The shrine was built at the site where the 12th Shi'ite imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi, disappeared. He is called the hidden imam and is the son and grandson of the two imams buried at Askariya.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.