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Iraq militants blame govt, Iran for shrine attack

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DUBAI, Feb 23 (Reuters) An Iraqi militant grouping led by al Qaeda blamed Baghdad's government and Iran today for the bombing of a major Shi'ite shrine and vowed reprisals after retaliatory attacks on Sunni Muslim mosques.

Sectarian violence swept the country after the bomb attack destroyed the Shi'ites' Golden Mosque in Samarra yesterday, unleashing attacks on Sunni mosques and dozens of killings.

''The Mujahideen Council declares that it will not allow this overt aggression and violation on the Sunnis and their mosques.

The answer will be jolting,'' the body, set up by Iraq's al Qaeda and other Sunni militant groups, said in statement posted on a Web site often used by militant groups.

The authenticity of the statement could not be verified.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, could have launched yesterday's attack to trigger sectarian war.

''The only people that want a civil war in Iraq are the terrorists like Zarqawi,'' she said.

But the Mujahideen Council said the government of Shi'ite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Iran, Iraq's predominantly Shi'ite neighbour, were behind the Samarra attack.

''The Mujahideen declare that what happened was concocted by the apostate government of Jaafari and ... Iran to cover up for the crimes they commit against (Sunni) Muslims,'' it said.

''The incident in Samarra, which targeted one of the rejectionists' (Shi'ite) idols, was followed by a series of events that show Muslims everywhere what had been prepared secretly against the Sunnis,'' it said.

Iraq cancelled all leave for the police and army and placed them on the highest alert as the death toll mounted on Thursday.

Police and military sources tallied more than 130 deaths, mostly of Sunnis, around the two biggest cities Baghdad and Basra in the 24 hours since the bloodless but highly symbolic bombing of the Shi'ite Golden Mosque in Samarra. Dozens of Sunni mosques have been attacked and several burnt to the ground.

REUTERS MP RAI2213

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