- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

BAGHDAD — Hundreds of thousands of chest-beating Shi’ite mourners gathered yesterday to honor Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, a leading cleric whose death in a bomb attack Friday has opened the door to a struggle for control of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

“We will not forget the blood of the Seyed Hakim,” chanted the mourners at the Imam Kadem shrine. They came from all parts of Baghdad and all walks of life: from unemployed former soldiers wearing cheap plastic sandals to professionals and merchants praying with colorful beads.

The mourners began assembling at first light for the first of three days of services spanning mosques in three cities across 100 miles to honor Ayatollah al-Hakim, who died Friday when a massive car bomb decimated the crowds outside the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, about 100 miles south of Baghdad.

U.S. military officials said yesterday that 125 persons were killed and 142 were injured in the attack, though some Iraqi officials cited death tolls as low as 81.

In another sign of the confusion surrounding the blast, the governor of Najaf said yesterday that no more than five men, all Iraqis, had been detained. The Associated Press quoted an unnamed Iraqi police source as saying that officials had detained 19 suspects — most of them holders of foreign passports and possibly linked to terror network al Qaeda.

Yesterday, men rhythmically beat their chests and women clutched their black all-covering abayas as they wept outside the Imam Kadem shrine, where the seventh of the 12 Shi’ite saints is buried. Some swarmed into the mosque carrying banners calling for revenge.

For Iraq’s majority Shi’ites, who suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein, the bombing inflamed a centuries-old sense of oppression and martyrdom.

“All history we have been killed and massacred,” said Ali al-Fekari, an economic consultant attending the ceremony. “They killed all the great figures of Islam. But we’re still Shi’ites and we still have our beliefs. Kill one, 100 will come in his place. Kill 100, a thousand will rise.”

During the weekend, Iraq’s clerics conferred in hushed tones in the alleyways of Najaf. Several prominent clerics — including one identified as the son of the powerful Ayatollah Ali Sistani — drove up in white sport utility vehicles for a private meeting at an office in Najaf.

“The situation is very dangerous now,” said Sheik Hassan al-Zergani, a cleric who preaches in the poor Shi’ite neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad. “They’re not just offering condolences. They have serious issues to discuss.”

Observers of Iraq’s clerical leadership describe an ongoing power struggle pitting middle-class followers of Ayatollah Sistani and the Hakim family against the poorer, younger and more militant adherents of a young cleric named Moqtada al-Sadr.

Under Saddam, no cleric was allowed to deliver Friday sermons at the Imam Ali mosque. Mr. al-Sadr took up residence in nearby Kufa, where his father, slain by Saddam in 1999, had preached.

When Ayatollah al-Hakim arrived from exile in Tehran, the pulpit at the Imam Ali mosque was vacant. With his death, at issue now is which Iraqi cleric will lead Friday prayers at the mosque, second in importance within the Shi’ite sect only to Muslim holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

“The privileges are moral and political,” Sheik al-Zergani said. “The many religious leaders who pray at the Imam Ali shrine implicitly accept the Friday prayer leader as their superior.”

William Beeman, an anthropologist who leads the Middle East studies department at Brown University in Providence, R.I., said Najaf “is rapidly becoming the ‘Vatican’ of Shi’ism — a role that had been taken over” by religious cities in Iran during the secular rule of Saddam.

“Anyone preaching at the Ali mosque is going to be listened to with special acuteness by the body of believers,” he said.

Muhammad Bahr al-Uloum, a leading Shi’ite scholar and one of 25 members of Iraq’s Governing Council, said he was suspending membership in the council, partly to protest the U.S.-led coalition’s failure to provide security in the country.

But he also said in an interview that he and other clergy in Najaf must concentrate on picking a successor to Ayatollah al-Hakim. “We haven’t decided who will take up Friday prayers at Imam Ali mosque,” he said. “That’s something we’ll hopefully resolve by the end of the week.”

The issue of Shi’ite leadership was on the tongues of many mourners in Baghdad yesterday.

“The older clergy can keep things under control better in these volatile times,” said Qamas Saba al-Qarabi, a worker from Sadr City, as he left the mosque. “Maybe a young man will be more impulsive and vengeful than he should. Under such exceptional circumstances, we need the wisdom that comes with age.”

But Haydar Kheir-Allah, 21, a volunteer in Mr. al-Sadr’s newly founded “Mahdi’s Army,” said he was thirsting for vengeance. “Every Iraqi is asking for revenge for Hakim,” he said. “We will take our revenge and fight and kill the Wahabbis and Ba’athists,” referring to members of a puritanical Muslim sect as well as loyalists of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party regime.

Many Shi’ites, though tolerant of the U.S.-led occupation force that ousted Saddam, blame the Americans for not providing security measures, which they say would have prevented the attack.

“Let the Americans leave Iraq,” said Abdul Sattar Abdul Jabbar, one of the Sunni community leaders joining the procession in solidarity with the Shi’ites. “Shi’ites and Sunnis will protect our country.”

Coalition military officials shrugged off the accusations, pointing out that it was Shi’ite elders who had asked coalition forces to keep distance from the sect’s holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Spanish Army Maj. Perez Ucha, whose brigade of 1,200 soldiers arrived to relieve some of the U.S. Marines in Najaf two weeks ago, suggested that the bombing amounted to Iraqi-on-Iraqi crime. “The tension here has more to do with the political and religious conflicts here rather than with us,” he said.

Many of the dead and wounded were taken to the Najaf Teaching Hospital, which went through two months’ worth of bandages and medicine in one day, said Dr. Hamid Dakhel Hossein. Blood had pooled on hospital beds where patients had been.

Etessar Mati Hatleq, a thin 25-year-old who had been shopping across the street from the mosque at the time of the explosion, had burns and shrapnel wounds across her face, hands and feet.

“It hurts a lot, especially on my cheeks and my feet,” she said from her hospital bed. “Thank God, it hurts less than yesterday.”

Sixteen-year-old Safar Ali Jassem, who had been selling sodas from a cart outside the mosque, suffered a shrapnel wound to his rib cage.

Safar said his 12-year-old brother, Hossein, had been injured more seriously and was recovering at another hospital. A relative said later that Hossein had died, but no one had the heart to tell Safar.

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