Insurgents in Iraq blew off the dome of one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest shrines Wednesday, triggering massive street demonstrations and deadly reprisal attacks against Sunni Muslims. President Bush and other world leaders have appealed for calm.
Iraqi authorities say men dressed as police entered the shrine of Imams Ali al-Hadi and Al-Hasan al-Askari in the city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, early Wednesday morning. They then set off explosives, reducing the shrine's golden dome to rubble.
The site contains the tombs of two ninth century Shi'ite imams. It is also the place where Shi'ites believe their last imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi, disappeared. He is called the hidden imam and is the son and grandson of the two imams buried at the shrine.
The Samarra attack sparked reprisals against Sunni Muslim mosques and worshippers. In Baghdad, angry crowds attacked at least 27 mosques and killed several people, among them three clerics.
Ten of thousands of protesters took to the streets in the mainly Shi'ite cities of Najaf and Kut, and in Baghdad's Shi'ite slum of Sadr City.
Iraq's most senior Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for seven days of mourning and forbid his followers to attack Sunni mosques.
Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani called for calm, saying all Iraqis should stand together to prevent the danger of civil war.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said those who commit violence in the wake of the Samarra bombing are only serving the interests of terrorists who want to see Iraq descend into sectarian violence.
"This is a critical moment for Iraq," said Zalmay Khalilzad. "We call on all Iraqis to unite against terror and violence. Coming together in unity to condemn this barbaric act, and working for Iraq's salvation will be the right response. This desperate and despicable act shows that terrorists stop at nothing and care for nothing."
In Washington, U.S. officials downplayed the prospect of civil war, saying much progress has been made over the last two years toward a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society in Iraq, and that the Samarra bombing should not tip the country toward civil war.
President Bush condemned the violence and urged restraint. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the terrorists have again proven that they are enemies of all faiths and of all humanity.
"I ask all Iraqis to exercise restraint in the wake of this tragedy and to pursue justice in accordance with the laws and constitution of Iraq," said Scott McClellan. "Violence will only contribute to what the terrorists sought to achieve by this act."
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, British and French leaders, and several muslim governments also condemned the attacks and appealed for calm.
No group has claimed responsibility for the Samarra attack, but Iraqi officials say several suspects have been detained.
The United States said the Shi'ite shrine would be rebuilt and restored to its former glory, and Washington would contribute to its reconstruction.