Within hours of the attack, tens of thousands of angry Shiites - many of them members of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army who brandished rifles and rocket-propelled grenades - took to the streets in at least least a half-dozen central and southern Iraqi cities. A spokesman at Mr. Sadr's main office in Baghdad said the militiamen were acting spontaneously, and had not been ordered out onto the streets.
The Iraqi and US militaries scrambled forces in Baghdad and other cities in an effort to protect Sunni mosques. US soldiers cordoned off the approaches to the Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad's Sunni- controlled Adhamiya district.
Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most respected cleric, issued a statement forbidding attacks on Sunni mosques and calling for seven days of national mourning. But in a rare move, he also called for public protests. Ayatollah Sistani has typically called for even peaceful protesters to stay off the streets, fearing a downward spiral into violence.
Ayatollah Sistani "has the coolest and wisest head in Iraq, but this has chaos written all over it,'' says Mr. Cole. "He must know the likelihood of these protests being completely peaceful is low, so he's got to be absolutely furious to call for people to come out on the streets."
Eyewitnesses in at least four cities reported attacks on Sunni mosques. Tariq al-Hashemi, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the biggest Sunni groups, said at a press conference that 29 Sunni mosques were burned across the country and demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice. He also dismissed Shiite protesters as "rabble," a term favored by Saddam Hussein to refer to Shiites.
Meanwhile, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the cleric who leads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of the country's two most powerful Shiite parties, and which has ties to the Shiite Badr militia, threatened reprisals in an interview with Sharqiya TV.
"If the government can't protect us then we will have to do it ourselves,'' he said.