- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 31, 2003

NAJAF, Iraq — Police have arrested 19 men — many of them foreigners and all with admitted links to al Qaeda — in the car bombing of a mosque in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf that killed 85, a senior Iraqi investigator said yesterday.

Two Iraqis and two Saudis grabbed shortly after Friday’s attack on the Imam Ali shrine gave information leading to the arrest of the others, said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Those arrested include two Kuwaitis and six Palestinians with Jordanian passports. The remainder are Iraqis and Saudis, the official said, without giving a breakdown.

Initial information shows the foreigners entered Iraq from Kuwait, Syria and Jordan, the official said, adding that they belong to the rigid Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam.

“They are all connected to al Qaeda,” the official said.

Wahhabism is the strict, fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam from which al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden draws spiritual direction. Based in Saudi Arabia, its followers show little tolerance for non-Wahhabi Sunnis and Shi’ites. Wahhabism was banned in Iraq by ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

The Najaf bombing, the worst attack in Iraq since the U.S.-led campaign to topple Saddam began in April, killed 85 persons, including a top Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. Hospital officials said higher tolls — 107, according to one account — were reduced after some deaths were found to have been reported twice.

Police pointed to similarities between the mosque bombing and two recent attacks.

The bomb at the Imam Ali shrine — the burial place of the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad — was made from the same type of materials used in the Aug. 19 truck bombing at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 23 persons, and the Jordanian Embassy vehicle bombing Aug. 7, which killed 19, the Iraqi official said.

In the shrine attack, 1,550 pounds of explosives were planted in two cars, the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite broadcaster reported, quoting the Najaf governor. The U.N. bomb was about 1,000 pounds.

The FBI said the U.N. bomb was built from ordnance left over from Saddam’s regime, most of it made in the Soviet Union. Many explosives were wired together, including a 500-pound Soviet-era bomb, the agency said.

U.S. officials have not confirmed any details of the arrests in Najaf, which would substantiate Bush administration claims that bin Laden’s followers have taken their Islamic militant war against the West to Iraq, where U.S. forces are struggling to maintain security.

The arrested men claimed the recent bombings were designed to “keep Iraq in a state of chaos so that police and American forces are unable to focus” on the country’s porous borders, which foreign fighters are said to be crossing, the Iraqi official said.

American authorities have not taken an active public role in the mosque investigation because of Iraqi sensitivity to any U.S. presence at the Najaf shrine, the most-sacred Shi’ite shrine in Iraq and the third holiest in the world after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

Thousands of angry mourners gathered outside the damaged shrine yesterday, calling for vengeance in the killing of Ayatollah al-Hakim, a cherished Shi’ite leader and Saddam opponent who had returned from exile in Iran in May.

While backing the formation of an Islamic state in Iraq, Ayatollah al-Hakim also urged unity among hostile Shi’ite factions and tolerance of the American-led coalition.

“Our leader al-Hakim is gone. We want the blood of the killers of al-Hakim,” a crowd of 4,000 men chanted, beating their chests.

Tens of thousands of worshippers filled the shrine and the surrounding streets of Najaf, 110 miles southwest of Baghdad, for a funeral service for the dead. Residents carried coffins on the tops of cars and backs of trucks.

A service for Ayatollah al-Hakim is scheduled in Baghdad early today. His remains will be buried Tuesday in Najaf, his birthplace and seat of the powerful al-Hakim family. Authorities said they have found only the ayatollah’s hand, watch, wedding band and a pen.

In response to the bombing, a highly respected Shi’ite cleric suspended his membership in the U.S.-chosen Iraqi interim Governing Council, citing a lack of security.

Muhammad Bahr al-Uloum, in exile in London until Saddam’s ouster, said yesterday that his return to the council depended on the coalition’s handing security matters to Iraqis, so that Muslim shrines could be under Islamic protection.

“This act has pushed me to postpone my membership in the Governing Council because it can’t do anything concerning the security situation,” he said.

The coalition says it avoided posting security forces near the Islamic holy sites in deference to the wishes of Shi’ite leaders.

The shrine investigation was being handled entirely by Iraqi police in Najaf, but the FBI would assist if asked, coalition spokesman Charles Heatley told reporters. “It’s clearly in our interests that those responsible be brought to justice,” he said.

He said the coalition had sent $200,000 to Iraqi authorities in Najaf as a disaster relief fund and earmarked $2 million for reconstruction in the city.

The coalition rejects charges that it is not providing adequate security, Mr. Heatley said.

The Najaf police official who led the initial investigation of the mosque bombing and interrogation said the prisoners described plots to assassinate political and religious leaders and to damage vital installations such as power plants, water supplies and oil pipelines.

In the latest sabotage, an explosion and fire yesterday struck the pipeline carrying oil from Iraq’s northern Kirkuk fields to Turkey. The blaze further delayed resumption of the vital link that costs Iraqis an estimated $7 million each day it is out of operation. The blast was the fourth to hit the line since it briefly reopened earlier this month.

In Baghdad yesterday, about 150 U.N. staffers stood amid the rubble at the world body’s headquarters at the Canal Hotel to pay final tribute to their colleagues who died in the bomb attack earlier this month.

The United Nations, which has reduced its expatriate staff in Baghdad from around 350 to about 120 since the attack, is operating out of tents and prefabricated buildings next to the hotel until new premises are ready, which is expected to take a month.

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