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Iraqis search through the rubble after an explosion in Samarra, Iraq damaged the golden dome of one of the country's most famous Shia religious shrines. (AP photo)

Protesters have killed at least 18 people and attacked dozens of Sunni Muslim mosques across Iraq in retaliation after a bombing at one of the most revered Shia shrines.

Tens of thousands of people stormed through the streets in protest after assailants blew up the golden dome of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra, about 95 kilometres north of Baghdad, early Wednesday morning.

Political and religious leaders urged Iraqis not to let the country slide into a civil war over the bombing, which many blamed on Sunni militants. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

The bombing killed no one, but ignited more unrest than many earlier militant attacks that left hundreds of Shias dead. The shrine contains the tombs of two revered imams and drew Shia pilgrims from around the world.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is Shia, went on television to declare three days of mourning, calling the explosion an attack on all Muslims and urging unity among sects.

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Another view of the golden dome of the Askariya Shrine in Samarra. (AP Photo/Hameed Rasheed)

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, accused the bombers of trying to sabotage talks to draw the country's Sunni minority into a coalition government dominated by the Shia majority.

"We must work together against the danger of civil war," he told Iraqis in a televised address.

Top Shia cleric calls for seven days of mourning

The country's top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, forbid his followers from attacking Sunni mosques and called for seven days of mourning.

Prominent Sunni groups and religious leaders, including the clerical Association of Muslim Scholars, also condemned the bombing and appealed for calm.

International leaders also urged Iraqis not to let militants push the country into sectarian violence. The United States promised to help rebuild the shrine.

More than 90 Sunni mosques attacked, Sunni group says

Other developments in Iraq include:

  • The country's biggest Sunni political organization, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said at least 90 Sunni mosques had been attacked, burned or overrun by Shia Muslims.
  • At least 18 people were reportedly killed, including three Sunni clerics and 11 Sunni men accused of being militants – including two Egyptians – who were pulled out of a Basra prison by gunmen.
  • The biggest protests, involving as many as thousands of people, took place in Shia neighbourhoods in Baghdad and in other Shia-dominated cities to the south, including Najaf, Kut and Basra.
  • In Baghdad, about 40 Shia militants wielding automatic weapons sprayed a Sunni mosque with bullets.
  • In Basra, Shia militants sparked a gunfight with guards at the office of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party.
  • Protesters in Basra started a fire at a Sunni shrine that contains the remains of a companion of the Prophet Muhammad.

Police detain suspects

Officials in Samarra said four men entered the Shia shrine at daybreak and set off two bombs that shattered its golden dome. The shrine contains the tombs of two revered imams and draws pilgrims from around the world.

It marked the latest in a series of attacks on Shia holy sites in the past few days.

U.S. and Iraqi forces surrounded the shrine and searched nearby houses. A police official said five police officers who were responsible for protecting the mosque had been taken into custody.

The country's Interior Ministry said authorities had detained several suspects, but did not say whether they included the bombers.

There have been rising fears of a civil war between the country's Sunni minority, who were dominant under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and the Shia majority, who won the majority of seats in the December 2005 parliamentary election.