BAGHDAD, Iraq—Protests raged in Shiite Muslim neighborhoods across much of Iraq on Wednesday, and mobs attacked Sunni mosques, after a pair of bombings in the troubled Sunni town of Samarra destroyed the golden dome of the Askariya shrine, one of Shiite Islam's most important sites.
The bombings pushed Iraq toward open civil war between its major religious sects, a scenario that could mire the U.S. military in a fight vastly more complicated than its current counterinsurgency campaign. The strife also threatened to undo efforts to form a government of national unity that includes representatives from major ethnic and religious groups.
An Iraqi Interior Ministry official said the Samarra shrine was hit by two bombs apparently set by a man in a military uniform and three others dressed in black who walked into the building Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning. Most suspected that Sunni militants were behind the attack. Iraq's interior minister, Bayan Jabr, said in a TV interview that his forces had arrested 10 people in connection with the bombings, three of whom were members of a Sunni political organization.
After word of the dome's demolition spread, more than two dozen Sunni mosques across the country were attacked. Iraqi police officials said they expected that number to rise to at least 50 by the time final reports came in Wednesday evening. Sunni officials said they documented more than 90 incidents, but those figures couldn't be verified.
Mobs stormed and set afire some mosques, while gunmen opened fire on others with AK-47s or rocket-propelled grenades.
Officials in Baghdad, accustomed to daily chaos, were alarmed at the rapid spread of violence.
"This is designed to bring about a civil war," said Barham Saleh, a top Kurdish leader.
President Bush issued a statement in Washington calling for restraint.
"The terrorists in Iraq have again proven that they are enemies of all faiths and of all humanity," Bush said. "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."
A Sunni mosque was still smoldering in the afternoon on the main road to the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, home to more than 2 million Iraqis, almost all of whom are Shiites.
Abdul Razaq Ibrahim, a Sunni, stood outside the mosque and watched smoke billow out after two carloads of gunmen set it on fire.
"Do you think we won't have our revenge now? It will come sooner than they expect," Ibrahim said. "Before this, I was neutral, I did not participate in killings and bombings. But the Shiites will drag us to it now."
Less than a block away, no one stirred at the local police station to halt the violence.
In Sadr City, throngs of Shiite militiamen, members of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, chanted slogans of revenge and death. A Mahdi member leaned out of a car window and said, "We burned it! We burned it!" as his friends pumped their AK-47s in the air.
Al-Sadr canceled meetings in Lebanon and was headed back to Baghdad.
The nation's top Shiite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for peaceful demonstrations and counseled Shiites not to attack Sunni mosques, but it was unclear whether the call would be heeded.
In Najaf, al-Sistani's home, thousands of protesters lined the streets, their voices booming: "Just order us, Sistani, and we will turn the world dark."
Hameeda Abbas, a housewife, was in the throng of Shiites and said, "I will send my sons to volunteer to protect our sacred sites in Samarra."
Conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslims has boiled for months, with Iraq's minority Sunni population accusing leaders of the Shiite majority of operating death squads. Most Shiites have grown increasingly angry with Sunnis, who make up the backbone of Iraq's insurgency, which has killed thousands of civilians.
With those tensions inflamed Wednesday, hopes of forming a coalition government that includes competing sects—seen as a key step before a major drawdown of U.S. troops could occur—were dimmed as Iraqi leaders tried instead to restore calm.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad stressed in a recent interview with Knight Ridder that Shiite political groups must disband their armed militias in order to bring stability to Iraq.
But for many Shiites, the surge of violence underscored the need for private armies to enforce security.
In what could be interpreted as a threat, al-Sistani said in a statement that "the Iraqi government is invited today, more than any time before, to bear its responsibility and stop the criminal actions that target the holy places. And if their security forces are unable to provide the necessary protection, then the believers can do that, with God's help."
When a Knight Ridder reporter visited Samarra earlier this month, U.S. soldiers complained that they had insufficient troops to maintain order. The 101st Airborne Division has about 120 soldiers inside and on the edge of Samarra. They replaced more than 400 soldiers who were there last year for the 3rd Infantry Division.
The U.S. military camp closest to the shrine is a patrol base at an abandoned schoolhouse a few blocks away. As of last week, only one platoon—a little more than 35 soldiers—manned the base, which soldiers refer to as "The Alamo."
Because of the thin ranks, those soldiers couldn't regularly patrol the city, leaving the task to Shiite troops brought in from Baghdad. Those troops are reviled by the Sunni residents in Samarra.
The destruction of the dome was a major blow for Shiite faithful. The tombs inside contained the remains of two of Shiite Islam's 12 imams—or successors to the prophet. According to Shiite lore, the tombs are near the place where the final imam—the Shiite messiah—disappeared.
Throughout the afternoon on Wednesday, Sunni protesters in Samarra chanted "Death to Americans" and threw rocks at the Shiite troops.
While a representative of the Muslim Scholars Association, the major Sunni clerics council in Iraq, said he was sorry that the dome had been bombed, Abdul Salam al-Qubaisi suggested that agents of Shiite Iran were responsible.
Like others interviewed during the Samarra demonstrations, Musab Ali al-Bazi, a Sunni mechanic, said he blamed outside interests for engineering the shrine bombing, apparently meaning Iran.
"We were hoping that the situation would calm down in our city, but things turned to be worst than we thought," al Bazi said. "This might push us to civil war" against the Shiites.
Sunni leaders said they were planning demonstrations later this week to protest the burning of their mosques.
Tariq al-Hashimy, head of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a main Sunni group, also offered his condolences, but he added that his party's headquarters in the southern Shiite town of Basra had been set on fire by a mob of hundreds who were allegedly aided by local police infiltrated by Shiite militia members.
"I call upon the wise people to control the situation before it goes out of control, which everyone would regret," al-Hashimy said.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers special Correspondent Hassan al Jubouri in Samarra, and Mohammed Al Dulaimy and Zaineb Obeid in Baghdad contributed to this report.)