- The Washington Times - Friday, August 29, 2003

BAGHDAD — A powerful car bomb killed one of Iraq’s most prominent Shi’ite clerics and at least 84 others outside Shi’ite Islam’s most important mosque in the southern city of Najaf yesterday.

It was the deadliest attack in Iraq since the April 9 toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government by American-led forces.

Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, 64, was spiritual leader of one Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite political groupings and most famous families. The bombing occurred as Ayatollah al-Hakim stepped out of the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, the most holy site in Iraq, where he had just delivered a Friday sermon calling for unity among Iraqis.

The blast gouged a 31/2-foot crater in the street in front of the mosque, tore apart nearby cars and reduced neighboring shops to a tangled mass of metal, wood and corpses.

Like the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad earlier this month, the explosion rocked Iraq’s fragile new peace at its core: the assassinated ayatollah’s younger brother serves on Iraq’s 25-member Governing Council.

The Associated Press, which surveyed Najaf hospitals, reported at least 85 dead and 140 wounded. Doctors reported 142 wounded, many critically, and the toll was expected to rise. Arab satellite broadcasters Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya both reported 229 injured.

Hours after the bombing, residents screamed in the streets in grief and anger. Some attacked reporters, while others continued searching through the debris for more victims.

Men and women pressed their hands and faces against the doors of the mosque, which was closed after the blast. Mosaic tiles were blown off the gold-domed building, a sacred Shi’ite shrine where Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad is buried. The building, which is visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims each year, appeared only slightly damaged.

Throughout Baghdad and at the offices of Ayatollah al-Hakim’s organization, tearful mourners called for revenge.

“It’s the Ba’athists,” screamed one man, referring to Saddam Hussein’s deposed political party.

“It’s the Wahhabis,” yelled another man, referring to the Sunni sect that inspires al Qaeda terrorists.

L. Paul Bremer, civilian leader of the U.S.-led occupation force, condemned the killing. “The bombing today in Najaf shows again that the enemies of the new Iraq will stop at nothing,” he said in a statement. “Again, they have killed innocent Iraqis. Again they have violated one of Islam’s most sacred places. Again, by their heinous acts, they have shown the evil face of terrorism.”

In Crawford, Texas, White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan also condemned the bombing, saying the United States is “resolved to defeat terrorism and to continue to work to bring a better life to the Iraqi people.”

An AP reporter in Najaf on Thursday saw no U.S. troops in the city, which is 110 miles south of Baghdad. However, after the bombing, American troops stood guard outside the city’s main hospital although they were not in the area around the mosque. Spanish forces, assuming control of the region from the U.S. Marines, were seen in small numbers on the outskirts.

A U.S. military spokesman said that “no coalition forces were in the area [around the mosque] because it is considered sacred ground.”

In Washington, Defense Department officials said the Iraqi police would lead the investigation into the bombing, and U.S. investigators would assist only if asked.

Earlier yesterday, attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades at two U.S. convoys in separate ambushes, killing one American soldier and wounding six, the U.S. military said.

The death raised the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq to 282. Of those, 67 have died in combat since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq.

In Basra, a car exploded near the main British military base yesterday, but there were no casualties, witnesses told Reuters news agency.

The Iranian-based organizations Ayatollah al-Hakim founded, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and its military wing, the Badr Corps, were for decades among Saddam Hussein’s most well-organized, well-armed and formidable opponents.

Based in Tehran during more than 20 years exile, Ayatollah al-Hakim’s group was branded a pawn of the Islamic Republic of Iran by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which later softened its view.

Ayatollah al-Hakim, during an interview at his offices in Tehran last year, said he was a religious man and did not want to get involved in politics.

He said he had lost over 50 relatives in the fight against Saddam. If Iraq were freed, he vowed, he would step aside as leader of the organization he founded and devote his life to religious studies.

“My place is in the heavens, not on earth,” he said.

Indeed, Ayatollah al-Hakim’s younger brother, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, took the helm of the organization and became a member of Iraq’s American-backed Governing Council as well as the family’s political face.

Iraq’s Shi’ites, many of whom decorate their walls, storefronts and car windows with his portrait, were shocked and devastated by the killing.

“He was a big star to us, especially to moderate Shi’ites,” said Ala Shamari, manager of a Baghdad currency exchange. “He came back here after 23 years in exile to help rebuild the country.”

The blast occurred five days after a small bomb placed outside the Najaf home of Muhammad Saeed al-Hakim, a relative of the slain ayatollah, killed three and injured 10.

Yesterday’s explosion was the third catastrophic car bombing in Iraq in less than four weeks. It came 10 days after a car bomb at the United Nations headquarters killed U.N. Iraqi envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and at least 23 others and 24 days after an explosives-packed vehicle killed 19 at the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad.

Joost Hiltermann, an analyst of the International Crisis Group, a policy think tank and advisory group, has traveled in and out of Iraq for months. He said the country’s security situation has deteriorated.

“The explosives are available, the expertise is available to set off these massive bombs,” he said.

“We may be getting into a pattern that we’ve seen in previous conflicts, say in Lebanon, a pattern of assassination as a way of bringing about political transitions.”

Ayatollah al-Hakim’s followers, gathered at many of the organization’s groups throughout the city, wept and screamed. “Whoever killed Hakim should be very afraid,” said Sheik Faisal Mohan Sa’adi, a Shi’ite cleric. “I myself am ready to blow myself up to avenge him. He was the eyes of all Iraqis.”

He broke down in tears. “I can’t continue,” he said.

Many faulted the U.S.-led coalition for failing to provide security despite the bombings and death threats members of Ayatollah al-Hakim’s family had reportedly received.

Iraq’s Shi’ite community is roughly divided between followers of Ayatollah al-Hakim and his family, followers of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a quiet, elderly and moderate cleric, and those flocking to Muqtada al-Sadr, the young, charismatic cleric whose murdered father, Ayatollah Mohamad Baqir al-Sadr, was a powerful Shi’ite cleric. While Ayatollah al-Hakim has been preaching peace and reconciliation from Najaf, the young Mr. al-Sadr — preaching at a mosque in nearby Kufa — has been calling for the creation of a Shi’ite army and branding the Governing Council as illegitimate.

Following the ouster of Saddam’s regime, Ayatollah al-Hakim’s group had recommended to the occupation powers that its Badr Corps military wing be converted into a civil defense and public works organization. Ayatollah al-Hakim’s followers said the recommendation was ignored.

“We blame the Americans,” said Mohammad Ghotbi, an adviser to Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim and one of the machine-gun-toting men gathered outside former Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz’s mansion, now an al-Hakim office.

“They haven’t paid any attention to security. They were the ones who insisted on taking charge of security.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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