Baghdad, Aug 31 (Reuters): A sea of mourners filled northern Baghdad today to bid farewell to a top Shia cleric, slain in a bomb attack his brother blamed partly on US forces for failing to bring security to Iraq.
Men in tears and women dressed in black thronged the streets around the capital’s golden-domed Mousa al-Kadhim mosque for the start of the funeral rites of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, killed along with scores of his followers.
The bombing has intensified an international debate about whether US-led occupation forces are capable of pacifying the country. Russia said at the weekend it would back a UN force for Iraq — even if it was under US command.
The mourners, numbering in tens of thousands, chanted and beat their chests in traditional Shia rituals as the coffin draped in a large black cloth was carried through the crowd and placed on a truck, guarded by men with automatic rifles.
Hakim, who returned to Iraq from exile in Iran after US-led forces toppled Saddam Hussein in April, advocated cautious cooperation with the occupying forces. He headed the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of the most prominent groups of Shias, who make up around 60 per cent of Iraq’s 26 million population.
Iran, which saw Hakim as an ally, announced three days of mourning and state television showed hundreds of mourners converging on a Tehran mosque for a ceremony led by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Many Shias have blamed Friday’s attack on diehard supporters of Saddam. Some analysts have suggested Shias opposed to Hakim’s moderate political positions could be to blame.
But Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the brother of the slain cleric who sits on Iraq’s US-appointed governing council, told the crowd of mourners in Baghdad that the occupying forces bore some responsibility as security was in their hands.
“These troops are ultimately responsible for achieving security and stability,” he said. “They are ultimately responsible for the innocent blood which is being shed every day in Najaf, Baghdad, Basra and Mosul and all over Iraq.”
Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, a leading Shia scholar, said he was suspending his membership of the governing council in protest at Hakim’s killing. He said in a statement that there was “a dangerous security void in Iraq, especially in Najaf”.
One day before he was killed, Hakim criticised US forces for failing to prevent an earlier bombing in Najaf on August 24 in which another top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim, was hurt. “They (Americans) carry a large part of the responsibility because of their shortcomings in security and protecting the holy places,” Egypt’s semi-official al-Ahram newspaper quoted Hakim as saying.
Iraq’s US-led interim administration says it faces a tough balancing act as it wants to provide security but not offend Muslims by placing foreign troops near holy sites. US officials have said little about who they think was behind the bombing but have cited foreign Islamic militants as possible suspects for similar attacks earlier this month which targeted the UN offices and the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad.
Most violence in Iraq is directed against occupation forces and Iraqis helping them. It has killed 65 US and 11 British soldiers since the official end of major combat on May 1.
In the latest incident, US forces killed six Iraqis who attacked their convoy with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire, a US military spokesperson said today. Two US soldiers were wounded in the incident yesterday afternoon just west of the northern city of Kirkuk, the official said.
Some diplomats argue hostility to any peacekeeping force would decline if it was more multi-national than the current US-dominated task force of 150,000.