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Iraq shrine bombing stokes Shi'ite fury

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SAMARRA, Iraq, Feb 22 (Reuters) A dawn bomb attack devastated a major Shi'ite shrine in Iraq today, sparking nationwide protests and sectarian reprisals against Sunni mosques despite appeals for calm from government and religious leaders.

The attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest sites, provoked more violence than attacks that have killed thousands but the Shi'ite-led government insisted it would not provoke civil war.

Iraq's Kurdish president accused the attackers of trying to derail negotiations on a national unity coalition; the United States, anxious to calm passions and bring its troops home, is pressuring Shi'ite leaders to bring Sunnis into government after the rebellious minority took part in an election in December.

No one was killed in the attack on the mosque in Samarra.

However a Sunni cleric was killed, police said, at one of 17 Sunni mosques in Baghdad fired on by militants. One mosque was damaged by fire, though most damage appeared relatively minor.

A powerful Shi'ite political leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, also called for calm and unity among Iraqis but said recent U.S.

pressure on Shi'ite leaders had encouraged the attackers, whom the government suspects are Sunni followers of al Qaeda.

The Shi'ites' reclusive and ageing senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani made a rare, if silent, television appearance that underlined the gravity of the crisis; he appealed in a statement for protests but restraint as protesters outside his office in Najaf chanted: ''Rise up Shi'ites! Take revenge!'' Sistani has helped hold in check anger religious Shi'ites feel as their majority enjoys power after years of oppression under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated, secular regime.

WARNINGS Armed Mehdi Army militiamen loyal to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr took up positions on streets in Baghdad and Shi'ite cities in the south, clashing in Basra and elsewhere with Sunnis; a Sadr aide said: ''If the Iraqi government does not do its job to defend the Iraqi people we are ready to do so.'' Negotiations over the government composition have exposed divisions among Shi'ite leaders, with Sadr gaining influence, and mixed responses to the crisis may reflect jockeying for power.

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