BAGHDAD, Feb 22 (Reuters) Iraqi Shi'ites today condemned the bombing of one of their most sacred shrines as an inhuman act designed to draw them into sectarian civil war.
''Whoever did this are not human beings. They are less than animals. It was a cowardly act,'' said Wuroud Kathim, 29, a computer specialist in Baghdad.
Gunmen burst into the Golden Mosque, one of four key Shi'ite holy sites in Iraq, and planted explosives that brought down it down, senior officials said. The 100-year-old, gold-covered dome is one of the biggest and best known in the Muslim world.
The bombing in the town of Samarra north of Baghdad touched a raw nerve among Iraq's Shi'ites, who have showed restraint despite bombings that have killed thousands in their majority community.
''The goal of this action is to drag the country and the people to a civil war and continuous violence and fighting,'' said Ali al-Moussawi, a cleric in the sacred Shi'ite city of Najaf in southern Iraq.
Shi'ites took to the streets in several cities as their top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani made a rare call for protests, albeit insisting they should not be violent.
About 2,000 protesters gathered near Sistani's office in the holy southern city of Najaf and shouted words rarely heard among his followers in the 60 percent Shi'ite majority.
''Rise up Shi'ites. Shi'ites take revenge. Rise up Shi'ites. Rise up Shi'ites,'' they yelled.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for many of the suicide bombings that have inflicted mass casualties on Shi'ites in a bid to trigger sectarian civil war.
Ahmed Mahdi, 40, said the attack on the shrine was an attempt to raise the stakes against Shi'ites to push them into civil war.
''This act shows they are trying to destroy every aspect of our life, including religious rituals, said the Baghdad construction contractor.
In the southern city of Kerbala, a follower of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr condemned the attack on the shrine as an attempt to plunge Iraq deeper into bloody chaos.
''We condemn this criminal act which was conducted by an infidel group which wants to drag the country into a blood bath and create a sectarian strife,'' said cleric Jalal al-Hafnawi.
Sadr's Mehdi Army militiamen gathered along tense streets of his Sadr City stronghold in Baghdad armed with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades and set up checkpoints.
More than 1,000 people demonstrated in Baghdad's mostly Shi'ite district of Kadhamiya, home to another Shi'ite shrine.
''God is great. They blew up the son of prophet Mohammad,'' they yelled.
Bombings against Shi'ites, which have killed more than 100 people at a time, have become part of their everyday life in Iraq.
The strong reaction to the Samarra blast raises questions about how long they will put up with it.
''God is greatest. Our patience is running out,'' protesters shouted outside Sistani's office in Najaf.
REUTERS SHR PM1920