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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: LAST YEAR'S TURNING POINT

The day civil war erupted in Iraq

A year ago, the Golden Mosque was struck, and Shiite turned on Sunni.

February 13, 2007|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

SAMARRA, IRAQ — The town is quiet, its residents asleep. A minute after midnight, the on-duty officer at a small U.S. base in the middle of Samarra starts his log. A solitary ambulance carries a sick child through the cold February night. Then, at 6:43 a.m., Army Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Gallas notes the sound of two explosions. Four minutes later: "Nighthawk elements report Main Dome on the Golden Mosque has been blown up."

Gallas does not know it yet, but the attack he has just recorded will reverberate throughout Iraq and the rest of the world.

The twin explosions last February claimed no lives. But because of the attack -- the destruction of a Shiite Muslim shrine in a Sunni Arab city -- thousands have died as Iraqis have engaged in a frenzy of vengeance, torching mosques and publicly executing civilians.

This was the dawn of Iraq's civil war.

On Monday, the anniversary of the bombing according to the Muslim lunar calendar, officials in Baghdad called for 15 minutes to remember the destruction of the shrine. Instead, bombs shattered two Baghdad markets frequented by Shiite residents, boosting the war's death toll by at least 87.

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No containing the rage

For almost three years after the U.S.-led invasion, Shiites endured bombings and assassinations by Sunni insurgents. They buried thousands of their dead with limited retaliation. Their preeminent cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, preached restraint.

But Feb. 22, 2006, was the day Shiites stopped listening.

The desecration of one of their holiest sites in Iraq was almost unfathomable. Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, a Shiite, compared its emotional resonance to the effect the Sept. 11 attacks had on Americans.

Top U.S. officials described the bombing as a "crime against humanity."

The government quickly imposed a nationwide curfew. Iraqi and U.S. troops were sent into the streets, mostly to protect Sunnis from retaliation.

But the rage would not be contained.

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A call goes out

At daybreak, an Iraqi interpreter for the Americans is one of the first people to reach the shrine.

Fuad, nicknamed "Tiger," has a Shiite mother and a Sunni father. He is agnostic. But this morning, seeing the Golden Mosque reduced to gray rubble, Fuad cries. Next to him, Sunni police from Samarra and Shiite forces from Baghdad are weeping. Although Samarra is a mostly Sunni city, the shrine is a source of pride for both sects.

The explosions bring sleepy Iraqis into Samarra's narrow streets. Looking toward the familiar landmark, they see its luminous shell shattered.

A call goes out from the mosque loudspeakers: Jews have done this, Americans are responsible.

By 8:10 a.m., a large group has gathered at the market near the mosque. As the crowd builds, protesters throw rocks at Iraqi commandos searching the area and there is sporadic gunfire. Some of the men simply hold up Korans, repeatedly chanting Allahu akbar -- God is great.

Before long, the mob pushes toward the U.S. base. At the gates, troops prepare to defend the compound, pointing heavy weapons at the Muslim men marching toward them.

Despite the call from the loudspeakers, the standoff doesn't last long. The crowd dissipates.

This is no longer about the Americans.

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The killing begins

In Sadr City, a vast poor neighborhood in east Baghdad, Shiite militiamen pick up AK-47s and grenade launchers and begin marching north toward the Sunni heartland.

Elsewhere, killers already are on the prowl.

Khalil Duleimi, a Sunni cleric, is among the first to be slain. He dies on the doorstep of his mosque in east Baghdad, killed in a drive-by shooting. In the Shiite-dominated southern city of Basra, a mob pulls a dozen Sunnis from a prison and executes them.

More than 12 hours after the twin explosions, Gallas logs another incident in Samarra. At 7:10 p.m., north of an American checkpoint, a TV crew is kidnapped. Atwar Bahjat, child of a Shiite mother and Sunni father and one of the Middle East's most respected correspondents, has traveled to her hometown to report on the bombing. Gunmen hunt her down, killing her and her crew.

Dozens of others are slain that first day, hundreds in the days to follow.

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Member of the family

The schism between Shiites and Sunnis dates to the 7th century and a dispute over the prophet Muhammad's rightful heir. Two hundred years later, a Sunni caliph worried about a possible Shiite insurrection brought two direct Shiite descendants of the prophet, Ali Hadi and Hasan Askari, to Samarra, where they died under house arrest, possibly poisoned by the caliph. The shrine contains their tombs.

During the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, laborers built the golden dome above the shrine, completing it in 1905. For the next 100 years, the setting sun's rays were reflected by the gilded canopy.

The city's inhabitants looked upon the shrine as a member of the family, a godfather; they saluted it as they walked by. Children called out Salaam aleikum -- Peace be with you -- to its golden top.

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'Police, police!'

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