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Blast destroys dome of Shiite shrine

BAGHDAD, Iraq - A large explosion destroyed the golden dome of one of Iraq's most famous Shiite religious shrines in Samarra early Wednesday, the U.S. military said, sending protesters pouring into the streets. Police believed there were victims buried under the debris but had no immediate casualty figures. The blast occurred about 6:55 a.m. at the Askariya Shrine, which contains the tombs of two revered Shiite imams, police Capt. Laith Mohammed said. It was the third major attack on a Shiite target in as many days after two deadly explosions in Shiite parts of Baghdad, raising fears of an escalation in sectarian violence. U.S. and Iraqi forces surrounded the shrine, famous for its golden dome, and began searching houses in the area. A U.S. Army photograph showed a gaping hole where the dome used to be. The military said the cause of the blast was not immediately known. Thousands of demonstrators gathered near the shrine, waving Iraqi flags, Shiite religious flags and copies of the Quran. "This criminal act aims at igniting civil strife," said Mahmoud al-Samarie, 28-year-old builder who was among the crowd. "We demand an investigation so that the criminals who did this must be punished. If the government fails to do so, then we will take up arms and chase the people behind this attack." Religious leaders at other mosques and shrines throughout the city denounced the attack in statements read over loudspeakers. The Sunni Endowment, the government agency in charge of maintaining Sunni mosques and shrines, also condemned the attack and said it was sending a delegation to Samarra to investigate. The shrine contains the tombs of the 10th and 11th imams, Ali al-Hadi, who died in 868 A.D., and his son Hassan al-Askari, who died in 874 A.D. They were descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. The shrine is visited by Shiite pilgrims from throughout the Muslim world. Imam Hassan was the father of Imam Mohammed al-Mahdi, the "hidden imam" who Shiites believe is still alive and will return someday to restore justice to the world. Samarra is about 60 miles north of Baghdad. AP