Tuesday, September 2, 2003

NAJAF, Iraq — Like a human sea, the faithful flooded the streets of this holy city yesterday to pay their last respects to Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the Shi’ite cleric slain in the massive car-bombing at the Imam Ali Mosque, the holiest in Iraq, last week.

Shaker Kadem Khedeyer’s devotion brought him on a 375-mile bus ride from Basra with nine friends and relatives to honor Ayatollah al-Hakim, whose voice and image he had known on Iranian television his whole life.

“This tragedy has hurt us all very badly,” said the 30-year-old laborer with big calloused hands and feet worn gray by the hot earth. “When it first happened, we couldn’t feel anything but shock. We had depended on him so much our whole lives.”

The 64-year-old cleric, a spiritual leader among Iraq’s majority Shi’ites, was buried amid tight layers of security yesterday in this sacred city 75 miles south of Baghdad. Amid rising concern about Iraq’s security, the ayatollah’s younger brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a member of Iraq’s 25-member Governing Council, called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

“The occupation force is primarily responsible for the pure blood that was spilled in holy Najaf, the blood of al-Hakim and the faithful group that was present near the mosque,” he said in his eulogy. “Iraq must not remain occupied and the occupation must leave so that we can build Iraq as God wants us to do.”

The explosion, just after Friday prayers, killed the ayatollah and scores of worshipers. Abdul Sattar al-Sudani, a member of the ayatollah’s disbanded militia, said the gravesite was situated on land bought by the Hakim family several days ago.

A more elaborate shrine might be built upon the site later, he said.

Many in the streets and alleyways of Najaf argued over the security lapses that allowed the blast.

Members of the Badr Corps, the army Ayatollah al-Hakim created to fight Saddam during his 23 years of exile in Iran, walked the streets carrying guns in defiance of the U.S. order barring all but coalition-approved security forces from publicly carrying weapons.

Sadeq Owf, a longtime Badr Corps fighter, said it was time for Iraqis to take over the nation’s security.

“The Badr militia should take over security here,” he said. “We as Iraqis can deal with our matters. We can ensure security. We don’t need any foreign forces.”

The U.S. coalition force appeared to be stepping up the effort to hand over responsibility for security to Iraqis. The new interior minister, to be sworn in today, will formally command the 37,000 recruits of Iraq’s new police force.

But the U.S.-led coalition, as the occupying power, will continue to be the ultimate authority on security matters. “It’s our legal responsibility,” said coalition spokesman Charles Heatly.

Mr. Heatly said Najaf was attempting to establish a 400-person armed security force — with distinguishing uniforms — for the holy sites when the bombing occurred.

Security was paramount in the minds of the funeral organizers, faced with throngs of mourners attempting to squeeze their way into the Imam Ali mosque along with the coffin. Clerics huddled inside the gold-plated shrine to the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad ultimately decided not to bring the funeral procession inside.

Instead, they performed a symbolic ritual inside the mosque while the coffin was carried away to the burial site.

Naseer Kamel Chaderji, a Sunni member of the Governing Council whose wife hails from a well-known Najaf Shi’ite family, said it would be difficult to find someone with the stature to replace Ayatollah al-Hakim. “He was religiously and politically qualified for the job.”

Amid the throngs at the funeral procession, voices called for revenge.

One man handed out leaflets for a group calling itself “The Army of the Land of the Prophet’s Followers,” dedicated to launching attacks against areas of the country populated by former followers of Saddam Hussein.

“This barbarous war and the massacre of the innocents will continue until we take the war into their land, the land of Saddam,” the leaflet read. “Hit them, strike them, remove them like a cancerous mole from the body politic.”

The crowds beat their chests and chanted rhythmically. “By God, we will raise hell,” they cried. “We will avenge the blood of Hakim.”

But the mood was more subdued than it had been over the weekend.

Ahmad Mahdi, a police officer, said people had calmed down in the days since the bombing.

“Yes, people are calmer than Saturday,” he said. “The anger is there but it’s inside us. What can we do? We’re all sad.”

Mourners had traveled from all over Iraq as well as from other countries. Besmallah Sharifi, an Afghan seminary student living in the city of Qom, said he smuggled himself across the Iranian border for a pilgrimage to the Shi’ite holy sites in Najaf and Karbala. He dismissed cries for revenge.

“We condemn this act,” he said. “But if we want to avenge this act we have to go through proper channels of justice.”

Many were still stunned by the bombing. At one point, Sudani, the member of the Badr Corps, began chastising passers-by. “We protected him for 23 years in Iran,” he said. “And you, the people of Najaf, couldn’t protect him for a month.”

The people turned their heads.

“They wouldn’t let us,” they said. “The Americans wouldn’t let us.”

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