World Bulletin / Mehmet Ali Kaçmaz
The explosion at the Golden Mosque in the northern city of Samarra was the third major attack against Shia targets in Iraq in as many days.
There were no confirmed reports of casualties from the blast although police said they believed some people may be buried under the debris left by the explosion early on Wednesday. The shrine contains the tombs of two revered Shia imams, both descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Tradition says the shrine, which draws Shia pilgrims from throughout the Muslim world, is near the place where the last of the 12 Shia imams, Muhammad al-Mahdi, disappeared.
Al-Mahdi, known as the "hidden imam," was the son and grandson of the two imams buried in the Askariya shrine. Shia believe he is still alive and will return to restore justice to humanity. An attack at such an important religious shrine would constitute a grave assault on Shia'ism at a time of rising sectarian tensions in Iraq.
The shrine is one of two tombs in Samarra for revered Shia imams, which attract pilgrims from around the world. Samarra is mainly a Sunni Muslim stronghold and has been a focus of the armed insurgency against US troops and the Shia-dominated Iraqi administration.
The al-Askari shrine, part of the Imam Ali al-Hadi mausoleum, is one of Shia Islam's holiest sites. The compound contains the remains of the 10th and 11th imams, reputed to be direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Imam Ali al-Hadi died in 868 AD and his son, Hassan al-Askari, died in 874 AD. The golden dome topping the al-Askari shrine was finally completed in 1905. The spiral minaret on top of one of the city's other holy sites, the Sunni Great Mosque of Samarra, was damaged in April 2003.