SAMARRA, Iraq (AFP) — Hundreds of Muslim worshippers on Wednesday visited a revered Shiite shrine in northern Iraq that is being rebuilt after a deadly bomb blast which triggered bitter sectarian bloodshed.
Visitors crowded into the mausoleum at the thousand-year-old Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, whose famous golden dome was destroyed by Al-Qaeda bombers in 2006 and further damaged in June 2007.
"We took the initiative to open up the mausoleum to hundreds of Samarra residents who came to visit," said General Raad al-Tamimi, head of police in the city to the north of Baghdad.
Security forces using loudspeakers announced on Tuesday that the mausoleum, housing the remains of imams Ali al-Hadi and Hassan al-Askari and which was built around the ninth century, was to be opened for six hours.
"We deployed our troops to protect the site and thankfully everything went well," Tamimi said.
The 2006 attack on the Shiite pilgrimage site in the largely Sunni city is regarded as the tipping point at which rivalry between Iraq's Muslim sects turned into a brutal sectarian conflict leaving tens of thousands dead.
The two distinctive minarets of the Al-Askari shrine were destroyed in the second bombing in June last year.
The massive golden dome, about 20 metres (66 feet) high and with a diameter of 68 metres (223 feet), was added in 1905. It was covered in 72,000 gold pieces and surrounded by walls of light blue tiles.
The mosque has been closed since the attack on February 22, 2006 and the city's skyline is still disfigured.
US and Iraqi officials blamed the bombing on a local man named Haitham al-Badri whom they say is a member of Al-Qaeda, but many in Samarra accuse outsiders of coming to cause trouble in their city.
On June 24 last year, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) signed a deal with the Iraqi government over the reconstruction of the site, with a budget of more than 8.4 million dollars.
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