NAJAF, Iraq—A powerful car bomb ripped through a crowd outside the Imam Ali mosque after prayers Friday, killing more than 75 people, including Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al Hakim, one of Iraq's leading Shiite clerics.
Hakim, 64, led the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the main Shiite groups vying for power in postwar Iraq. Though opposed to the U.S. occupation, he preached a moderate form of Islam and hoped to unite Iraq's Shiite majority under his control. His brother, Abdul-Aziz al Hakim, is a member of the U.S.-backed Governing Council.
Many people in Najaf said they thought the attack was an assassination, and blamed everyone from former intelligence agents of ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to Islamic terrorists. Hakim had returned to Iraq in May from Iran, where he had lived in exile for 23 years. His armed guerrilla fighters had clashed with Saddam's forces for years throughout southern Iraq.
The bombing threatened to undermine Shiite cooperation with the American-led coalition. Many Iraqis in Najaf and Baghdad were angry over the failure of the U.S. military to protect them and their leaders.
Cooperation between Shiites and the U.S.-led coalition that's running Iraq had been favorable, with the exception of flare-ups between American forces and Muqtada al Sadr, a radical young cleric and rival of Hakim who has called for Iraqis to oppose the coalition.
Many in Iraq blamed Sadr for a bomb attack in Najaf last Sunday that wounded Hakim's uncle and killed three bodyguards.
Safaa al Ameedi, the director of the Najaf hospital where most of the victims were taken, said there were at least 75 people dead, and that the number could increase because some people were severely injured. A survey of other hospitals found 142 were wounded, al Ameedi said.
Elsewhere in Iraq, guerrillas fired rocket-propelled grenades at two U.S. convoys, killing one American GI and wounding five others in separate ambushes, said Capt. Jeff Fitzgibbons, a military spokesman.
The Najaf mosque bombing was the third major terrorist attack in Iraq in three weeks. Terrorists detonated a truck bomb outside the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad on Aug. 19, killing 23 people, including Sergio Vieira de Mello, the top U.N. envoy in Iraq, and wounding more than 100. A truck bomb outside the Jordanian Embassy killed 19 people Aug. 7 and wounded more than 60.
In Baghdad, Paul Bremer, the U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, condemned the Najaf bombing and promised "full cooperation" with Iraqi police to bring the perpetrators to justice.
"The bombing today in An Najaf shows again that the enemies of the new Iraq will stop at nothing," Bremer said in a statement.
Secretary of State Colin Powell called the bombing "a heinous crime against the Iraqi people and the international community" and expressed "our deepest sympathies to the Iraqi people and Shi'a Muslims around the world."
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also condemned the bombing and offered condolences.
Witnesses said Friday's bomb exploded at 2 p.m., just as Hakim left the mosque and went onto a side street after delivering a sermon calling for unity among all Iraqis. The mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites, is the burial place of Ali, the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law and cousin.
The blast destroyed two three-story buildings across from the mosque and a row of shops, and gouged a 3-foot crater in the street. The skeletal remains of the chassis and engine block from a Toyota Land Cruiser, which witnesses said was used in the bombing, lay 50 yards down the street.
"I was at the gate of the mosque when it happened," said Sami Saeed, 22. "Hakim had just finished the prayers and was going to his car to go home. As soon as he got out of the gate, there was a huge explosion. There were cars on fire, and rubble was thrown everywhere."
As word of the bombing spread, a crowd of several thousand gathered around the mosque.
Ambulances, with sirens wailing, crawled through the crowd. Emergency workers dug through the rubble, looking for the dead and wounded. A man pushed a handcart that held part of a blackened torso and what appeared to be a severed forearm and hand partially encased in plastic bags.
The burned hulks of at least three cars lay twisted and wrecked in the street. The blackened remains of another Toyota Land Cruiser, which witnesses said belonged to Hakim, was crumpled against a wall of the mosque, apparently having taken the full force of the blast.
Many in the crowd shouted in anger. A large man in a white dishdasha, an Arab robe, threatened violence against two journalists if they didn't leave the scene. A woman railed against American troops for failing to provide adequate security.
"This happened because there is no order and security in Iraq!" said Aqeel Zwain, 23, her face tightly framed by a black scarf, or abaya. "Najaf is a small city and the Americans cannot even control it. America should accept the blame and be punished for this incident."
Until recently, relations between Najaf residents and U.S. troops stationed outside the city generally had been considered some of the best in Iraq. American troops often were seen in the streets, performing reconstruction tasks without their heavy flak vests and helmets. Lt. Col. Chris Conlin, who commands a battalion of Marines south of Najaf, was considered something of a local celebrity because of his focus on reconstruction.
It was unclear who carried out the attack. No group claimed responsibility. "We have absolutely no information; we don't know anything," said Lt. Col. Hassan Jabar, a Najaf police commander.
"This was an assassination because Hakim fought against Saddam and the Baath Party," said Jassem Mohammed Hassan, 26. "They hated Hakim."
A crowd of about 2,000 gathered at the Najaf hospital where the dead and most of the victims were taken, hoping for news of their loved ones. As each ambulance arrived, hundreds pushed forward for a glimpse of who might be inside. U.S. troops stood guard outside the hospital's gates, allowing only medical staff inside.
In Baghdad, Iraqis hailed Hakim as a martyr of the highest order: one who died in a holy place. Taxi drivers stuck his photo in the windows of their cabs and families taped his image to popular posters that depict dead Shiite clerics throughout Iraq's history. Bookstore owners removed the writings of rival clerics from their shop windows to display the many books Hakim produced.
Both Sunni and Shiite Muslims vowed to pursue Hakim's goal of working together for an independent Iraq, though many said the lack of security was their biggest obstacle.
"Sunni and Shiite are brothers for one Iraq, but we're not allowed weapons to protect ourselves, so this is the responsibility of the Americans," said Abbas Ahmed, 40, who's from a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad. "When U.S. troops are attacked, you see how many tanks they send in response. But when one of our religious figures is attacked, they have no idea how to protect us."
The Governing Council declared three days of mourning and announced in a statement that "the sinful hands that killed Ayatollah Hakim with all his great history will not stop Iraqis from fulfilling his projects" that would lead toward democracy.
Supporters poured into several Baghdad offices of Hakim's organization. Outside one, chanting demonstrators carrying sticks and posters of Hakim cursed American troops who positioned armored vehicles to break up the gathering.
Down the street, armed guards conducted unprecedented body searches on worshipers entering a Shiite holy shrine. Security personnel said they had arrested two women who had weapons hidden under their black robes, and were looking into several threatening letters received in the past week.
(Hannah Allam in Baghdad contributed to this article.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Mohammed Baqir al Hakim
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030829 Najaf blast, a locator map, and 20030829 USIRAQ Hakim