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Iraq Transition

Gunmen strike 27 Baghdad mosques, kill imams

CNN crew members covering violence abducted and released

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Iraqis walk past the Al-Askariya Mosque, damaged by the blast Wednesday.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Gunmen targeted 27 Baghdad mosques and killed three Sunni imams Wednesday in the wake of a bomb attack at one of the holiest Shiite sites.

The wave of attacks followed an early morning bombing at the Al-Askariya "Golden Mosque" in Samarra. The strikes, involving small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds, all happened between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., police said.

A CNN crew was also caught up in the violence, and in Basra, southern Iraq, a local official said jail inmates were abducted.

Twelve inmates were snatched from the main prison in Basra by gunmen carrying Iraqi government identification cards, a member of the Basra provisional council said.

Around midnight, 10 bodies were found and taken to a hospital where officials were trying to determine if they were among the prisoners, who were of Egyptian, Tunisians, Libyan, Turkish, Saudi Arabian and Iraqi descent.

Also, at least three members of a CNN crew, all Iraqis, were beaten and briefly kidnapped Wednesday afternoon while shooting video at a roadblock on the outskirts of Sadr City, Baghdad, where a mob was protesting the bombing of the Shiite mosque.

The journalists were separated and roughly interrogated before being released. They then returned to the Baghdad bureau, where they were treated for their injuries.

Three of the mosques attacked in Baghdad were burned down, and in addition to the imams, three guards also were killed. One imam was kidnapped.

Security was beefed up around all mosques in Baghdad, police said, and Iraqi security forces across the country were placed on high alert. Officers on vacation or leave have been told to report for duty, police said.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni party in Iraq, condemned all the violence and said Shiites had taken over Sunni mosques in the southern town of Diwaniya and arrested worshippers.

Meanwhile, gunmen stormed the party's southern Baghdad office, evacuated its employees and torched the building.

The largely Sunni insurgency has periodically targeted Shiite Arabs. Over the past year, Sunnis have accused the Shiite-led government of targeting them in raids.

Iraqi and U.S. leaders urged people to remain calm and united amid fears the sectarian violence could escalate into civil war, but a U.S. State Department spokesman said he believes the threat of civil war is overstated.

"There are forces seeking to prevent democracy and obstruct the peaceful political and economic development of Iraq," Adam Ereli said Wednesday at a news conference. "They seek to achieve their goals in a number of ways. But, as I said before, promoting sectarian violence is one of them. There's nothing new here."

Meanwhile, the top half of the golden dome that once towered above the Al-Askariya Mosque collapsed in the blast. Minarets flanking the dome remained standing amid mounds of debris. (Watch how the blast is intensifying tension -- 1:51)

The Samarra attack happened at 7 a.m., when gunmen dressed as Iraqi police commandos bombed the site, which has deep historical significance in Shiite Islam.

Shiites believe Imam al-Mehdi, the 12th and final awaited imam, will reappear at the Al-Askariya Mosque to bring them salvation.

Al-Mehdi is the son of Imam Hassan al-Askari, the 11th imam, who is buried in the shrine. His grandfather, the 10th imam, is also buried there.

Al-Mehdi is said to have disappeared in the eighth century during the funeral of his father and is believed by Shiites to have been withdrawn by God from the eyes of the people, until his return.

Salaheddin province, where the shrine is located, is home to a large Sunni population.

Residents of Baghdad said members of a militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr were going door-to-door asking heads of household to swear they had nothing to do with the Samarra attack. Samarra is 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of Baghdad.

There were no immediate reports of injuries in the bombing, and 10 people -- all dressed as Iraqi police commandos -- have been arrested, according to Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie.

Foreign fighters were likely responsible, and the attack bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda in Iraq, al-Rubaie said.

"They are really testing the patience of the Iraqi people," he said, calling on Muslims around the world to condemn "this act of terrorism."

The attack occurred as Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni leaders are working to form a national unity government.

Both Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, said the attack was an effort to incite sectarian violence.

In a taped address on Iraqiya TV, al-Jaafari called on all Iraqi political parties to condemn the mosque attack and asked Sunni and Shiite Iraqis to demonstrate in Samarra.

Al-Jaafari also declared a three-day period of mourning and ordered the ministries of Defense and of Housing and Reconstruction to assess damage and begin rebuilding the shrine.

Talabani condemned the "horrendous crime," saying, "The perpetrators' aim is to start a civil war between Iraqis."

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, called for a week of mourning and is expected to call for businesses to close in protest for three days, a spokesman said.

President Bush condemned the "brutal bombing of the Golden Mosque," promising help to rebuild it and asking Iraqis to exercise restraint.

"The terrorists in Iraq have again proven that they are enemies of all faiths and of all humanity," he said in a statement. "This senseless crime is an affront to people of faith throughout the world."

Peaceful protests, not violence, urged

Demonstrations against the bombing of the Al-Askariya Mosque were held across the country.

Following noon prayers, 4,000 demonstrators in Baghdad walked from al-Sadr's office toward a nearby mosque, a spokesman for his office said. By the time the march ended, the number of people had swelled to 10,000, the spokesperson said. It was one of several protests in Baghdad neighborhoods, according to Iraqi Emergency Police.

Al-Sadr cut short a visit to Lebanon and was returning to Iraq, where he was planning to make a televised statement. A senior spokesman for al-Sadr's movement urged "calm and patience" and said maintaining national unity is Iraq's priority.

In Samarra, several hundred people gathered at the mosque and at the mayor's office, denouncing the Iraqi government and the U.S. military, authorities said. Thousands of protesters also took to the streets in Najaf, Kut and Karbala, police said.

Other developments

  • Just east of Salaheddin in Diyala province, gunmen killed two Iraqi police officers on their way to work in central Baquba and two companions of a judge on the outskirts of Muqtadiya. The judge was wounded.
  • A bomb killed 20 people and wounded 25 others at a marketplace in the southern Baghdad suburb of Dora on Tuesday afternoon, police said. (Full story)
  • Three Muslim men from the Middle East have been charged in the United States with plotting attacks against U.S. and coalition troops in Iraq and other countries. The three have pleaded not guilty. (Full story)
  • CNN's Arwa Damon and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

    Copyright 2006 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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