The explosion carved out a crater about 3.5 feet deep in the street in front of the mosque, which is one of the holiest in Iraq and contains the shrine of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. An Iraqi hospital official put the death toll at 75. Thousands of people in Najaf filled the streets outside the mosque to search through rubble for victims.
Among the dead was al-Hakim, who had just delivered a sermon calling for Iraqi unity. Al-Hakim, 64, was the spiritual leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the top Shiite groups opposed to the toppled Saddam Hussein regime.
“[H]is eminence Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim has died in the blast today while he was leaving Friday prayers. It was a car bomb,” the SCIRI’s London representative, Hamid al-Bayati, told BBC radio.
Mohsen al-Hakim, one of the cleric’s nephews and a top official of the SCIRI, blamed those loyal to the deposed Iraqi dictator for killing his uncle.
“In the first place we hold former Baathists and those related to them responsible and we call on those responsible for security in Iraq particularly in Najaf to carry out an immediate investigation in the case,” Hakim told Reuters.
The top U.S. civilian official in Iraq, Paul Bremer, denounced the bombing.
“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.
No coalition troops were in the area of the mosque out of respect for the holy site, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jim Cassella said in Washington.
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 for the bombing.
“We know they are active in trying to undermine the Governing Council and allies of the U.S.,” he said in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.
Chalabi denied an earlier report on Al-Jazeera television alleging that he had accused U.S. forces of failing in their responsibility to keep the area secure.
In an interview with the NewsHour in February 2003, al-Hakim, speaking about the possibility of war and U.S. plans for postwar Iraq, said “If it’s a war of invasion and occupation, the United States forces will face a strong resistance. But if the Americans come to help the Iraqis to determine their fate and to rule themselves, there will be no resistance.”
The attack is the latest in a series of bloody incidents in Najaf, several of them aimed at religious leaders of the Shiite branch of Islam followed by a majority of Iraqis.
Three men were killed on Sunday in a bombing that injured another key cleric associated with SCIRI, which has been criticized by some Shiites for cooperating with the U.S. occupation. Some of the group’s supporters blamed that bomb on a rival Shiite leader strongly opposed to the presence of foreign troops.
Younger Shiites, many from Baghdad’s Sadr City slum, have reportedly been fighting for power with the more traditional Shiite Muslims in the city and region and 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 and become the voice of Iraq’s Shiite majority.
Also on Friday, attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades at two U.S. convoys in separate ambushes that killed one American soldier and wounded six, the U.S. military said.
Insurgents fired three rocket-propelled grenades at a U.S. 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.