Mosque slaughter was 'worse than American air raids'

By Justin Huggler in Baghdad
30 August 2003

Twisted fragments of cars, rubble and human remains marked the spot where a leading Shia cleric was killed by a car bomb yesterday. A severed ear could be seen in the wreckage.

The car bomb was massive. It blew a crater three feet wide in the street, leaving at least 80 people dead, more than three times the toll in last week's attack on the UN headquarters in Baghdad. Hours after the blast, there was still pandemonium in the holy city of Najaf as people screamed in the streets in grief and anger. The atrocity was committed near the Shrine of Imam Ali Mosque, one of the holiest places for Shia Muslims.

Houses and shops opposite were reduced to a tangled mass of metal and wood. Worshippers pressed their hands and cheeks against the doors of the shrine. "Even the Americans didn't bomb us like this," screamed one woman.

It was clear that yesterday's bomb was meant for one man. Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim had survived seven assassination attempts. The explosion that killed him was timed to perfection, detonated as thousands of worshippers were pouring out of the mosque after noon prayers. The cleric was about to be driven away when the bomb blew his car to bits. This was an assassination. The scores of other people who died were "collateral damage".

But it was also a massacre, and one outside one of Shia Islam's holiest places, the resting place of one of the two most important Shia saints.

Mr Hakim was the leader of one of the more powerful Iraqi Shia factions. His brother is a member of the US-appointed "Governing Council", a supposed interim government made up of Iraqis that is actually powerless.

The dead cleric had many enemies in Iraq, among his fellow Shia as well as in Iraq's other communities. One Iraqi Shia smiled when he heard the news of the death yesterday, and said: "I will celebrate."

But his death comes at a dangerous time, with rival factions competing for the political leadership of Iraq's Shia amid a dispute over whether the Shia should be involved in active resistance to the American occupation. The death of a prominent political leader such as Mr Hakim could whip up a firestorm.

He has been a figure of controversy in Iraq for years. Even his right to the title of ayatollah was disputed. But the reason he was a figure of hate for many Iraqis was his close relationship with Iran, and more specifically his role in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, in which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died.

Ayatollah al-Hakim's faction, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), backed Iran in the war. More than that, its armed wing, the Badr Brigades, are believed to have fought for Iran. Former Iraqi prisoners-of-war claim they were interrogated in Iranian prisons by members of the Badr Brigades.

Saddam Hussein condemned the ayatollah to death during his long exile in Iran. He was finally able to return after the dictator was overthrown, and he did so in triumph in May. "Where is the one who fought you now? Where is shameless Saddam?" Ayatollah al-Hakim's supporters chanted as he preached a sermon in the Shrine of al-Hussein in the holy city of Karbala.

But his return left many in Iraq uneasy. For one thing, the Iranian-backed SCIRI was seen by many as a tool for Iranian interference in Iraq. Last year, he told The Independent that even a temporary American military government in Iraq would be unacceptable. But after the overthrow of Saddam he sent his younger brother, Abd al-Aziz, to serve on the "Governing Council".

A week ago, the ayatollah's uncle, the senior cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Sa'id al-Hakim, was slightly injured in a bombing at his house in Najaf. It is not clear to what extent the two attacks are linked; the two men were not politically allied.

Najaf is seething with intrigue. A day after Saddam was toppled, a meeting called to reconcile rival Shia groups erupted at the Shrine of Alia and a mob hacked to death Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a Shia cleric who had returned from exile in London.

There is growing pressure among more radical Shia for active opposition to the US occupation. There is rivalry for the political leadership of the Shia, with the country's highest Shia religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, refusing to get involved in politics and calling for calm. Ayatollah al-Hakim was competing for the leadership.

Another candidate is Moqtada al-Sadr, a young firebrand in his twenties who is not a senior cleric but who commands considerable popular support because his late father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr, was Ayatollah Sistani's predecessor. The younger Mr Sadr has called on his supporters to join an armed wing.

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