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Mosque Bombing in Najaf, Iraq

August 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: First, the blast that occurred today outside the holiest site in the Shiite branch of Islam. It killed one of Shiism’s leading figures in Iraq.

Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, was a longtime critic of Saddam Hussein and he and his family suffered for it. In Iraq in the 1970s, Saddam’s government tortured and imprisoned Hakim and killed 14 of his brothers and nephews.

So in 1980, Hakim fled to Iran next door. He formed a Shiite political party called the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a group that also has a military wing. Hakim was often critical of the U.S., which in turn was suspicious of his ties to conservative Iranian clerics. Ayatollah Hakim spoke to the NewsHour’s Elizabeth Farnsworth in February, three weeks before the U.S. Invasion of Iraq.

AYATOLLAH HAKIM (Translated): The U.S. is thinking of dominating and occupying Iraq, which will create nationalist and religious sensitivities inside Iraq, which will lead to violence and bad consequences for the Iraqis and the Americans. The Iraqi people will surely resist this idea. I believe that the Iraqi people and the popular and national forces inside Iraq will not accept a military governor.

RAY SUAREZ: In May, after Saddam’s regime was toppled, Hakim returned to Iraq to a huge reception. This crowd in Basra chanted, “No to America” and “Yes to an Islamic republic.” Hakim himself struck a more moderate note.

HAKIM (Translated): They should leave Iraq to Iraqis and they should see how the Iraqis will keep the security and rebuild Iraq. We don’t want the Islam of the Taliban nor the Islam of extremists.

RAY SUAREZ: Hakim’s party is now based in Najaf, the birthplace of Shiite Islam and one of its holiest cities. His brother is a member of the U.S.-chosen Iraqi Governing Council.

Shiites represent 60 percent of Iraq’s 23 million people. Most of the rest are Sunni. But competing Shiite ayatollahs, or senior clerics, live in Najaf as well. One is Moqtada al Sadr, a young leader known for his fiery, anti-American rhetoric.

Before today’s blast, Najaf was not immune to violence. In April, at the same shrine attacked today, a mob hacked to death a Shiite cleric considered pro-American. It’s still unknown who was behind that event. On Sunday, three bodyguards of Hakim’s uncle, one of Iraq’s most senior ayatollahs, were killed when a bomb exploded at an office. The uncle survived.

Mohammed Bakr al Hakim blamed that attack on Saddam Hussein loyalists. His own death came today, just five days later.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on today’s bombing and its significance, we are joined by Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times. Neil, welcome. Why would Ayatollah al-Hakim have been a target?

NEIL MACFARQUHAR: Well there, are a number of reasons why different groups might have wanted to kill him. The first and the most obvious one that people in Najaf cite is members of the former regime, who dislike him because he is such a prominent Shiite clergyman, and that he was among the most active members of the exiled opposition to Saddam Hussein.

And they also cite the possibility that Sunni Muslim terrorist groups have infiltrated Iraq and, given the long animosity between the two rival branches of the faith, that they carried it out. And those two explanations are the most public and those are the ones cited by officials and people in the streets.

But when you send an Iraqi reporter with no notebook and no pen out to garner opinion, what they are whispering among themselves is that it is the work of a smaller group of militant clergymen who oppose the idea of working with the U.S. occupation government and who would like to form an Islamic state modeled on Iran.

RAY SUAREZ: In Najaf itself, has it been a more violent place, a more tense place in recent weeks?

NEIL MACFARQUHAR: It has been. Ironically, Ayatollah Hakim, who is the Friday prayer leader here, had just given a sermon involving a bombing last Sunday in which the Grand Ayatollah was targeted and three people standing outside his home was killed when the small explosive device made out of gas bottles went off.

But there has been a series of incidents, starting with the stabbing of a cleric allied with the United States, who had come back from exile in April, there have been threats against other grand ayatollahs. The senior aide of one has been stabbed in the neck.

And so there has been growing unrest here about some sort of schism in the Shiite community that would come just when they thought they would get a real chance at influencing Iraq to have real power and authority here that reflects their numbers of being about 65 percent of the population.

RAY SUAREZ: Given these violent incidents that you’ve just cited, did Ayatollah Hakim himself move with security? Were there people around him trying to protect him?

NEIL MACFARQUHAR: He did have bodyguards in a van that was in front of him, and he had some behind him as well. But one of the horrific scenes described by the driver of the third car in the motorcade said that when he saw this wall of fire erupt in front of him, he looked and he saw the bodies of the four bodyguards burning in the first car.

The whole attack kind of underscores the weakness in U.S. attempts to create security and to make the country a more stable place because around the shrine is considered sacred ground. And so everyone in Najaf asked the U.S. Marines, who control the area for the moment – they’re about to hand it over to the Spaniards – not to send soldiers near the shrine. But at the same time there were complaints about, you know, the lack of security, just a little security like pickpockets circulating among the thousands of pilgrims that show up there.

And so the people of Najaf had decided to form their own security force. And it was kind of an unofficial one of about 400 men. Then the U.S. forces and the governor were cooperating to put together sort of a 300-man official force, but the money had not come through to start their training and start that officially.

And that was one of the key complaints the people were so upset in the area around the shrine today. You know, they were screaming, there is no order, there is no government. Bring back Saddam. At least in those days we weren’t being blown up.

RAY SUAREZ: The attack seems to have been timed to cause the maximum amount of human suffering. Has the death toll risen through the day?

NEIL MACFARQUHAR: It’s been a very confusing situation here because, you know there is no real authority or information system set up here. The governor and the police chief are all in a, you know, situation room in the police headquarters, but they are refusing to speak. I guess the governor went toward the site but he wouldn’t take any questions.

Hospital officials give us various numbers. It had been 75 earlier in the day. We went back to the hospital and they said some people had died after their operations and it now stood at 95 dead and about 142 wounded. But that was just in one hospital. There might be more at another. So it’s a little bit unclear. But it’s huge.

RAY SUAREZ: Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times, thanks a lot.

NEIL MACFARQUHAR: Thank you.