WASHINGTON - The militant group al Qaeda is suspected of being behind today's bomb attack on a major Shi'ite shrine in Iraq which sparked sectarian reprisals, a senior US official said.
"We believe this can be traced back to the Zarqawi al Qaeda movement," said the State Department's coordinator for Iraq policy, Ambassador James Jeffrey, adding the United States would do all it could to track down the perpetrators.
Asked what evidence the United States had to link the attack to al Qaeda, Jeffrey said Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, had often called for attacks on Shi'ite targets and said they were aimed at sparking civil war.
"We are trying to connect the dots," he told reporters at the State Department. "We certainly think it would be in line with what they have been saying and doing."
The attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra provoked outrage and counter-attacks at Sunni mosques in Baghdad where police said three clerics were among six people killed.
Earlier, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani made an urgent appeal not to let the country slide into civil war, a call echoed by Jeffrey.
"We find all of these (attacks) to be extremely troubling. We find all of them certainly to be efforts to spark a civil war. We think the Iraqis will do their very best to avoid just that. They understand the risks better than we," said Jeffrey.
Jeffrey said he believed the attack was aimed at sabotaging the creation of a new Iraqi government.
Earlier this week, the US ambassador to Iraq issued a tough statement warning Iraq's leaders that Washington would not tolerate sectarianism or militias in the new government and its security forces.
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the United States was investing billions of US taxpayer dollars into these forces and expected this money to be spent properly.
Asked whether this meant that the United States would soon cut funding, Jeffrey said the United States was putting about $15 billion into Iraq's security forces and there was an obligation to ensure this money was not wasted.
"To some degree we have to look at the leadership of those (Iraqi) ministries," he said.