The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Angry Shias vow revenge after cleric attack

Najaf, Aug. 25 (Reuters): Thousands of angry Shias, some vowing revenge, thronged the streets of the Iraqi holy city of Najaf today for the funerals of three men killed in a bomb attack that wounded a top cleric.

Ayatollah Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim, who was slightly injured in yesterday’s bombing, is the uncle of the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), criticised by some Shias for cooperating with the US-led occupation.

SCIRI said its movement was the target of yesterday’s attack, which blew a hole in the side of Hakim’s office and killed three bodyguards. Some supporters blamed a rival cleric who has condemned the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.

Power struggles in Najaf are key to the future of Iraq, whose 60-per cent Shia majority is eager for a taste of power long denied them under repressive Sunni rule. Many leaders returned from exile after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Infighting among Shias is unwelcome for US forces grappling with an insurgency they blame on Saddam’s loyalists.

And it is also unwelcome for US President George W. Bush, whose approval ratings are slipping ahead of an election year when he will hope to present his Iraq campaign as a success. Washington is keen to rein in more radical Shia leaders who favour a theocratic Islamic republic for Iraq similar to that of their neighbours in Shia Iran.

The bomb followed days of ethnic violence between Kurds and Turkmen in the north, which killed at least 12, and the killing on Saturday of three British soldiers in Basra in the south.

In Najaf, many in the crowd of at least 2,000 blamed yesterday’s bombing on supporters of rival leader Moqtada al-Sadr. His group denied involvement.

“This was Moqtada al-Sadr. His people did it,” said 60-year- old Muslim Raadi, as he followed the procession of three wooden coffins. “Now there will be revenge. The only way to stop this is for the people of Najaf to stop it. We will have to form our own militia.”

SCIRI, led by Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, is represented on the US-backed Iraqi governing council, which Washington calls a first step towards democracy. The attack took place near the Imam Ali mosque, tomb of Ali, a caliph and cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, and the most sacred Shia site in Islam. Ten people were wounded by the bomb, which left glass and debris strewn across Hakim’s office. Tension between rival Shia groups in the city, 150 km south of Baghdad, has risen since US forces took Baghdad on April 9. The following day, a mob hacked cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei to death at the Imam Ali shrine.

Mohammed Hussein al-Hakim, the son of the cleric wounded yesterday, said the attack was aimed at fuelling instability and urged Shias not to descend into a cycle of violence.

“Be united in your religion and refer to religious scholars before doing anything,” said the Islamic scholar, speaking inside the bombed building guarded by Iraqi police wearing body armour and carrying AK-47 assault rifles.

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