Friday, August 29, 2003

Iraqis yesterday blamed Saddam Hussein’s followers and Islamist extremists for the massive bombing outside a holy shrine that killed the country’s top spiritual leader and moderate Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim.

“I think Saddam’s loyalists did this,” said Hamid al-Hayati, spokesman for the cleric’s Shi’ite-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI).

“For them he was a constant target,” said Mr. al-Hayati, adding that during Saddam’s rule his forces had killed 16 members of the ayatollah’s family, including one of his brothers.

Saddam was a Sunni who brutally oppressed the Shi’ite majority during his dictatorship.

The explosion that left at least 85 dead underscored for some the increasingly violent rivalry between older, more moderate religious leaders and younger, more radical clerics fighting for power in a post-U.S. Iraq.

“The Shi’ite community is highly divided and there is a staking for position here,” said Rajan Menon, professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

“The radical Shi’ites want to send a message that cooperation with the United States is a death sentence,” he said.

But the power struggle could backfire, he said, if it comes to light that another Shi’ite cleric had Ayatollah al-Hakim assassinated.

“SCIRI has its own paramilitary corps. If they decide they are going to find out who did this and settle scores, that muddies the waters in Iraq even more,” warned Mr. Menon. “It could mean more car bombs, more assassinations,” he said.

“It means that one of the voices of relative moderation is gone, has been extinguished. It’s time to worry.”

By yesterday it was not clear whether the violence came from Saddam loyalists trying to bring chaos to what had been the relatively calm south, or power disputes between Shi’ite factions, with younger radical clerics like Muqtada al-Sadr trying to grab the extreme flank of the Shi’ite community.

The bombing came days after an earlier attack on another leading Shi’ite cleric and a relative of the ayatollah’s, Muhammad Saeed al-Hakim. Many Najaf residents blamed that attack on Mr. al-Sadr.

Coming just 10 days after a car bomb blew up the U.N. offices in Baghdad, leaving at least 23 dead, the latest blast rammed home the magnitude of the security problem in Iraq and the difficulties the United States faces in trying to rebuild the complex country.

People in Baghdad struggling daily for basic health and water services are questioning how much power the U.S. and coalition forces actually have, and may start thinking twice about cooperating with the American civilian and military powers.

“There’s going to be a combination of two sentiments: a strong element of fear, and fear of political involvement,” said Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

A revered cleric among the Shi’ite who represent 60 percent of Iraq’s population, Ayatollah al-Hakim was seen as a moderate despite his close ties to Iran.

Although he repeatedly called for an early end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, he was seen as willing to live with the presence of U.S. forces until an Iraqi government took over.

The ayatollah’s brother, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, is a member of the U.S.-approved Iraqi Governing Council.

Mr. al-Hayati warned, however, that yesterday’s brutal action would only serve to increase the bitterness among Iraqis who feel U.S. forces are unable to fully control the country despite their earlier military success.

“Once Saddam was toppled we actually crossed into a different kind of war, one in which our strong suits of technology became if not irrelevant, at least much less effective,” said Mr. Menon.

Several Iraqi political forces, including SCIRI and the Iraqi National Congress, said the only way to stem the growing violence is to establish an Iraqi security force.

“We Iraqis know who is the bad guy and who is the good guy,” said INC spokesman Entifad Qanbar in a telephone call from Baghdad. “It is very difficult for an American officer to know the inside and outside of Iraqi society.”

The INC rejected the suggestion that Shi’ite rivalry was at the core of the blast.

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