Gunmen at a makeshift checkpoint south of Baghdad murdered 47 people who had been demonstrating against the destruction of the Shia shrine at Samarra, bringing Iraq close to a sectarian bloodbath.
The victims were Shia and Sunni returning from a demonstration in the town of Kenaan, when they were dragged from their cars and killed. Their bodies were left in a ditch by the side of the road. The scale and intensity of the violence increasingly resembles Lebanon at the start of its bloody civil war 30 years ago.
The number of dead in the vicious circle of violence provoked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra was rising by the hour yesterday. More than 130 people are known to have been killed in tit-for-tat killings by Shia and Sunni, but the true figure is certainly much higher. The militant Sunni Clerical Association of Muslim Scholars said 168 Sunni mosques had been attacked, 10 imams had been killed and 15 abducted.
Among those to die in the crescendo of violence were a correspondent of al-Arabiya television and two members of her crew who were taken away by gunmen when they were interviewing people in Samarra.
Overnight, 12 prisoners were taken out of a jail in Basra and 11 of them killed. In all, 25 people are known to have died in the mainly Shia city. In Baquba, north of Baghdad, a bomb targeting an army patrol killed 16 people, including eight soldiers and eight civilians.
A particularly worrying factor in the present wave of violence is that frequently the sectarian killers either disguise themselves as army or police officers or really are soldiers or policemen. This means that both Shia and Sunni will be forced to rely on their own powerful militias for security. This marks a new stage in the disintegration of the Iraqi government.
The government is seeking to restore order by extending the curfew in Baghdad, where at least 53 people have been killed, and in Salahudin, north of Baghdad. It has closed the road outside the Abu Hanifa, the most important Sunni mosque in Baghdad.
The Sunni Muslim Clerics Association sounded unapologetic about the attack in Samarra, saying it pointed "the finger of blame at certain Shia religious authorities for calling for demonstrations". This will anger the Shia, who say the Sunni have never accepted that there are three Shia Arabs for every one Sunni Arab and that, post-Saddam, it is the Shia who will rule.
The carefully planned abduction and execution of 47 people yesterday is a poor omen for the future. The gunmen, who are probably Salafi insurgents - Sunni fundamentalists who see the Shia as heretics who deserve to die - had set up a checkpoint to catch demonstrators going home. The bodies, mostly of young men, were found near the village of Nahrawan, where there was already a history of hostility between Shia and Sunni. Also ominous is the fact that sectarian killings are taking place all over the country, though figures are only known for those in the main cities.
It is a measure of the degree of violence that seven American soldiers were killed by bombs on Wednesday in the separate struggle between the resistance and the US occupation. Although the presence of 130,000 American troops is justified by saying that they are preventing a civil war, it is not clear what they can do to prevent it happening.
Two days of bloodshed
WEDNESDAY 22 FEBRUARY
Dawn attack destroys the Golden Mosque in Samarra, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. No one is injured but violent protests soon break out.
* More than 50 Sunni mosques attacked in Baghdad alone.
* In Basra, protesters set fire to Sunni shrine containing the remains of one of Mohamed's companions. Sunni cleric is shot dead in the afternoon.
* 11pm: Eleven prisoners taken from a jail in Basra by unidentified gunmen and shot in the head.
THURSDAY 23 FEBRUARY
9am: Bodies of three al-Arabiya journalists sent to cover the Samarra bombing found dumped.
* 10am: 47 people dragged from their cars and shot while returning from a protest against the Samarra bombing north of Baghdad.
* Iraqi President Jalal Talabani summons political leaders to a meeting but the biggest Sunni faction, the Iraqi Accordance Front, refuses to attend.
* Numerous bodies, many with their hands tied, found in east Baghdad and Basra. Most victims are Sunnis.
* As night falls, more than 130 people are believed to have been killed.
The reaction worldwide
"They invade the shrine and bomb there because they oppose God and justice. These passive activities are the acts of a group of defeated Zionists and occupiers."
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian President
"This bombing is intended to create civil strife... [it was] an evil act. I appreciate very much the leaders from all aspects of Iraqi society that have stood up and urged for there to be calm. The destruction of a holy site is a political act intending to create strife."
President George Bush
"There is not yet information about what caused this terrorist outrage, but [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi and al-Qaida have been linked as it has the hallmarks of their nihilism."
Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary
"I tell the Americans, the Zionists and the criminals who committed the crime in Samarra that all your aims will fail. I tell them that this nation will not be torn apart... It will not fall for the tricks of the occupiers."
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Lebanon's Hizbollah chief
"We want a clear condemnation from the government which didn't do enough to curb those angry mobs. There was even co-operation with the government in attacking the Sunni mosques."
Salman al-Jumaili, Sunni politician in Iraq