Friday, August 29, 2003

NAJAF, Iraq — A car bomb exploded at the Imam Ali mosque during Friday prayers in this holy city, killing 75 people, including one of Iraq’s most important Shiite clerics, authorities said.

The blast destroyed nearby shops and dug a crater about 3 1/2 feet wide in the street in front of the shrine, Iraq’s holiest. People screamed in grief and anger as they searched the rubble for victims. Nearby cars were torn into twisted hunks of metal by the explosion.

A survey of Najaf’s medical facilities counted 75 dead, with 140 wounded, including many who were seriously hurt, said Dr. Safaa al-Ameedi, chief doctor at the central hospital in the city, 110 miles southwest of Baghdad.

Among the dead was Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, 64, who had just delivered a sermon calling for Iraqi unity.

Shiites in Iraq are embroiled in a generational power struggle, but there was no evidence the bombing was the work of the younger Shiite faction, which has its strongest support in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum.

Both the al-Hakim supporters and a prominent figure in the U.S.-backed government blamed Saddam Hussein loyalists.

Along with last week’s deadly bombing at the U.N.’s Baghdad headquarters, Friday’s attack seems certain to undermine stability in Iraq and make it even more difficult for the Americans to maintain security.

Earlier Friday, 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.

Murthada Saeed al-Hakim, al-Hakim’s nephew who spoke to the family in Najaf, told The Associated Press the cleric had been killed.

“I saw al-Hakim walk out of the shrine after his sermon and moments later, there was a massive explosion. There were many dead bodies,” said Abdul Amir Jassem, a merchant who was at the mosque.

The mosque - an important Shiite shrine that is visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims each year - appeared to have suffered only minor damage, with some mosaic tiles blown off. Afterward, a group of men and women pressed their hands and faces against the doors of the shrine, which was closed.

“Even the Americans didn’t bomb us like this!” wailed one tearful woman.

Residents jammed medical facilities to look for relatives who may have been hurt in the bombing, which occurred as thousands were pouring out of the mosque, al-Ameedi said.

Ayatollah al-Hakim was the spiritual leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and had divided his time since the end of the war between Tehran and Najaf, the holiest Shiite Muslim city in Iraq.

Mohsen Hakim, another of the cleric’s nephews and a spokesman for the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, said in Tehran that Saddam loyalists were the prime suspects behind the killing, and he called on U.S. occupation forces to identify the murderers.

Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress and a Governing Council member, blamed Saddam, his remnants and his allies from across the border.

“We know they are active in trying to undermine the Governing Council and allies of the U.S.,” he said.

“I don’t hold the American forces responsible for the al-Hakim assassination. But I hold the coalition forces responsible for security in Iraq. The Americans have taken responsibility for security in Iraq and I appeal to them to keep the peace,” Chalabi said on Al-Jazeera television.

No coalition troops were near the mosque out of respect for the holy site, said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jim Cassella. U.S.-led troops have been asked to stay away from the mosque by Shiite officials.

An AP reporter in Najaf reported no U.S. troops were seen in the city. Spanish forces, who are taking control of the region from the U.S. Marines, were seen in small numbers on its outskirts.

The top U.S. civilian official in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, denounced the bombing, saying it demonstrated that “the enemies of the new Iraq will stop at nothing.”

“Again, they have killed innocent Iraqis. Again, they have violated one of Islam’s most sacred places. Again, by their heinous action, they have shown the evil face of terrorism,” Bremer said in a statement.

The FBI won’t investigate the bombing unless U.S. citizens were involved or if Bremer asked for help, said FBI spokesman Bill Carter in Washington.

In Sadr City, about 1,000 al-Hakim followers demonstrated in front of the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution headquarters. Some sat weeping on the ground; others shouted for revenge.

“We will not forget our Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim!” they chanted. One protester fired a pistol in the air and urged the crowd to search for the Saddam backers and foreign fighters that he claimed were responsible.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also condemned the attack and urged all political and religious groups “to refrain from further acts of violence and revenge.”

There has been considerable unrest among the religious factions in Najaf.

The ayatollah belonged to one of the most influential families in Iraq’s Shiite community. His brother, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, is a member of the U.S.-picked interim government and led the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, headquartered in Iran before the war.

Younger Shiites have been fighting for power with the more traditional Shiite Muslims in the city and region, trying to grab control from the al-Hakim family.

Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, who is not yet 30, and his young followers have sought to replace more traditional factions as the voice of Iraq’s Shiite majority, portraying themselves as the ones doing the most to redress decades of suppression by Sunni Muslims under the Saddam’s rule.

“The killing appears to have sought to deny Shiite Muslims an effective role in Iraq’s future at a time when Iraq is gradually preparing for elections,” said Iranian political analyst Morad Veisi in Tehran.

He said the killers sought to sow discord between Shiite and Sunni Muslims and showed the United States is “incapable of providing adequate security in Iraq.”

The blast occurred a week after a bombing at the Najaf home of another of Iraqi’s most important Shiite clerics killed three guards and injured 10 others. It exploded at the home of Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim - a relative of the ayatollah killed Friday - just after noon prayers Aug. 24.

A day after Saddam’s ouster, a mob at the Imam Ali mosque hacked to death Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a Shiite cleric who had just returned from exile, at a meeting called to reconcile rival groups.

Shiites make up some 60 percent of Iraq’s 24 million people.

In Friday’s attack on the U.S. troops, insurgents fired three rocket-propelled grenades at a supply convoy on a main road northeast of Baqouba, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, said Capt. Jay Miller from the 67th Armor Regiment’s 3rd Battalion.

The soldiers were also hit by small arms fire, and one of the wounded will lose his leg, said Capt. David Nelson from the 4th Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade.

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.

Another U.S. Army convoy was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade near a mosque in Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, said spokeswoman Spc. Margo Doers. She said two were wounded in the attack.

At the United Nations, key Security Council members said U.S. talk of relinquishing some military authority in Iraq was a first step in trying to deal with the postwar turmoil. But they said a real solution will require more power for Iraqis and the United Nations.

The Bush administration is sounding out nations on a possible U.N. resolution to transform the U.S.-led force into a multinational force authorized by the United Nations with an American commander.

The United States is trying to assess whether the proposal - which was floated last week by Annan - would prompt more countries to send peacekeeping troops to Iraq to relieve some of the 138,000 U.S. troops.

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