| Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer-al-Hakim
Najaf, Aug. 29 (Reuters): A car bombing killed 75 Iraqis, including a top Shi’ite leader, today in an apparent assassination that dealt a grave blow to the US occupation and left carnage at the holiest shrine of Shi’ism.
The blast tore through worshippers as they streamed away from Friday prayers in the Imam Ali mosque in the holy city of Najaf. It was by far the worst such atrocity in Iraq since the US-led war toppled Saddam Hussein in April.
In the aftermath, Iraqis burrowed into rubble strewn with body parts in a hunt for survivors. Volunteers screaming “God is great” pulled out a severed foot and dug frantically around a deep crater filled with twisted metal and stinking black water.
Some supporters of the slain Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, 63, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, blamed Saddam loyalists.
But some commentators pointed to bitter faction-fighting among Iraq’s long-repressed Shi’ite majority that has raged in Najaf since the end of the war.
Hakim was for many the leading Shi’ite figure in Iraq and his cooperation with the US-led administration through its governing council was seen as crucial to the American efforts to stabilise the country and instal democratic rule.
“We have at least 75 dead and that could go up to 80 because of severe injuries. There are 142 wounded,” Dr Safaa al-Aneedi, director of the Najaf teaching hospital, said.
Three gutted cars lay in the street by the mosque. Some witnesses said there had been more than one explosion.
Witnesses said Hakim was about to drive away from Friday prayers when the blast destroyed his car.
A US military spokesman confirmed there had been a bomb.
The attack is the latest in a series of bloody incidents in Najaf, several of them aimed at religious leaders of the Shi’ite branch of Islam followed by a majority of Iraqis.
The Shi’ite power struggle is viewed as one of the keys to the future of Iraq. Washington is keen to discourage those Shi’ite leaders who favour Islamic clerical rule like that of Shi’ite Iran, where many lived in exile during Saddam’s reign.
With many Iraqis belonging to Saddam’s once dominant Sunni Arab minority or to other ethnic and religious groups like Kurds and Christians, the prospect of domination by the 60 per cent Shi’ite majority is one that many regard with anxiety.
“There is a very serious chance that what we are entering here is a Shi’ite civil war akin to what happened in Iran in 1979-80 with rival factions jockeying for power,” said Ali Ansari, an expert on Iran at Britain’s Durham University.
At the scene, some called for a stronger American presence around holy places where a few months ago Shi’ites demonstrated to keep the troops away.
“The world is going to be turned upside down after this. This is our holiest site,” said Qusay Jaber.
Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim was tortured under Saddam’s rule and spent more than 20 years in exile in Iran before returning to Iraq after the US-led victory.
“We deplore this horrible act of terrorist violence,” said a White House official. “We will not be deterred in our efforts to help the Iraqi people rebuild their country and establish a representative democratic government.”