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Angry Shiites mourn killing of cleric

NAJAF, Iraq—Thousands of angry Shiites poured into the streets Saturday to mourn the assassination of a top cleric, killed two days ago in a car bomb attack outside the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

Beating fiercely on their chests and heads, many weeping openly, mourners cried for revenge in the death of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir Hakim, 64, a moderate leader who was killed Friday shortly after delivering a sermon calling for Iraqi unity. The blast killed at least 78 others and severely wounded 134, according to a revised official tally by authorities at the Najaf Teaching Hospital. They blamed duplications for higher numbers they'd offered earlier.

The mourners, many carrying black funeral banners and holding up poster-sized images of the late cleric, chanted slogans denouncing deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whose former intelligence services are widely blamed for the attack. They also condemned U.S.-led forces for failing to establish adequate security in post-war Iraq, especially for Hakim, who'd returned from Iran in May after 23 years in exile.

"Death, death to Baathists!" the crowd chanted, referring to Iraq former ruling regime. "No, no to America! God is great! God is great!"

One of Iraq's leading Shiite clerics, Hakim, 64, was the spiritual leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the main Shiite groups jockeying for power in the post-war era.

Tortured and imprisoned under Saddam during the 1970s, he went into exile in 1980 and led a group of Iraqi Shiite fighters, known as the al Badr Brigades during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. For years afterwards, his fighters carried on a small-scale guerilla war against Saddam's troops in southern Iraq.

Though he publicly opposed the U.S.-led occupation, Hakim quietly cooperated with allied authorities, and a brother, Abdel Aziz al Hakim sits on the U.S.-appointed Iraq Governing Council. Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population, were brutally suppressed for years under Saddam. Though Shiites until now have generally cooperated with U.S.-led forces, Hakim's death, coupled growing discontent in southern Iraq over security and other issues, threatens to undermine that support.

Hakim's nephew, Amar Abdel Aziz Hakim, delivered a eulogy Friday from the second-floor balcony of a small mosque a stone's throw from where his uncle died. To thousands pressed into the narrow street below and spilled out into adjacent blocks, demanding revenge, the younger Hakim, clad in a black turban and shawl, appealed for patience and calm.

"We must control our feelings, and we must listen to our spiritual leaders," Hakim said. But he also lashed out at the U.S.-led coalition for failing to establish law and order across Iraq, and appealed for U.S. and allied forces to turn over security functions to Iraqis.

"We have told the occupation forces that Iraq is for Iraqis and not for them," Hakim said.

In a brief interview later, Hakim blamed the bombing—the deadliest terrorist attack since the U.S.-led occupation began—on lax security. Unguarded borders, he added, are allowing thousands of foreign extremists into Iraq.

Hakim said he believed that members of Saddam's former intelligence services were behind the attack.

"We don't have the full information that the former regime did it," he said. "But the way that this assassination happened, and the fact that they have killed four clerics before now and tried to kill three more, leads us to believe the former regime is behind it."

Until Friday's bombing, Najaf was seen as a shining example of cooperation between Shiites and coalition forces. U.S. Marines were frequently seen working on reconstruction projects in the town without their flak vests and helmets. The Marines and a small contingent of soldiers stationed in Najaf generally kept a low-profile on Friday, the Muslim holy day, and they never sent patrols or stationed troops around the Imam Ali mosque out of respect for religious sensibilities.

Some news organizations Saturday reported arrests of al-Qaida or Saudi terrorists in connection with the bombing. But police in Najaf denied that any arrests had taken place.

"We haven't arrested anyone," said Lt. Kassim Nisaf.

Coalition spokesmen in Baghdad, who asked not to be identified, said they could not confirm the reports either.

They said $200,000 in disaster relief funds had been handed over to Najaf officials, and that an additional $2 million in reconstruction money had been set aside to help the city recover from the blast.

Col. Guy Shields, a coalition spokesman, said U.S. forces would continue to keep troops away from holy sites in the city, despite calls for increased security, adding there was little U.S. soldiers could do to prevent car bombs.

"Determined terrorists have in the past found a way through some of the tightest security possible," he said. "Basically, intelligence is going to be the key. Intelligence is going to stop this," he said.

As Hakim's eulogy continued Saturday, mourners pressed forward to kiss the mosque's thick wooden doors through which Hakim exited just before his death. As a half-dozen women clasped their hands to their mouths and wept loudly, another railed at a U.S. journalist.

"Why didn't you kill Saddam when you had the chance?" she asked. "Why did you leave him alive? He is the one who is responsible for this. He killed Hakim."

Hakim's body was obliterated in the blast. Searchers said they'd found only a hand that they believed was his and some bits of flesh.


(Knight Ridder correspondent Ken Dilanian contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ