Accessibility links

Iraq: Bomb Attack On Senior Cleric Underscores Political Instability

  • Charles Recknagel

A bomb attack at the house of a prominent cleric in Al-Najaf over the weekend has called new attention to the potentially violent political divides among Iraqi Shi'a organizations. The attack wounded the uncle of the leader of the best-organized Shi'a party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and killed three of his staff.

Prague, 25 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It is still very unclear who attacked the home of Ayatollah Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim yesterday, apparently in an effort to kill the 67-year-old religious leader.

News agencies quote a spokesman for the cleric, Abdul Hussein al-Kadi, as saying that four men in a car dropped a canister of cooking gas near the wall of the house beside the room where the grand ayatollah and his son were resting.

The spokesman said bodyguards noticed a flame coming from the top of the canister before it exploded, killing two of the guards and another household employee. The ayatollah was also wounded with light cuts to the neck.

But while no one knows who was behind the attack, suspicion in Al-Najaf immediately fell upon political rivals of the al-Hakim family. And those enemies -- thanks to the family's prominence -- are numerous.

The ayatollah is the head of one of Iraq's most powerful clerical families. The family includes his nephew Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, who leads the best-organized Iraqi Shi'a group, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

The group waged a long guerrilla campaign against deposed leader Saddam Hussein from exile in Iran until the U.S. overthrew the Iraqi regime in April. In recent months, SCIRI has modified its traditional calls for an Islamic system in Iraq and now says it is ready to work toward that goal within a democratic framework. A representative of SCIRI is one of the 25 members of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council in Baghdad.

Within hours of the attack, a top SCIRI official said that Hussein loyalists had attempted to kill the religious leader, who has no formal relationship with SCIRI itself. Mohsen al-Hakim told France's AFP news agency that "the primary suspects are former members of the Ba'ath regime...that want to spark a war between Shi'as and Sunnis."

But Hussein loyalists are perhaps just the most obvious enemy to single out. Many observers say it is equally possible that al-Hakim was attacked by supporters of another Iraqi Shi'a religious family who oppose working with the U.S.-led occupation.

That is the al-Sadr family, until recently headed by Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated along with two of his sons by presumed agents of Hussein in Al-Najaf in 1999. The loyalty of many of his supporters has now passed to another son, Muqtada, a mid-level cleric about 30 years of age.

Mohamed-Ali Haidari, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, says that relatives of this weekend's bombing victims accused al-Sadr supporters of staging the attack.

"Some of the people who were in the funeral of those three who were killed yesterday accused Muqtada al-Sadr followers and they called on the religious leaders to establish a Shi'a militia in Al-Najaf to prevent another attack," Haidari said.

Al-Sadr's group, which calls itself "The Active Religious Seminary," has denied it has anything to do with the attempt on the elder al-Hakim, and said Hussein loyalists are to blame. But al-Sadr's group has previously drawn charges of involvement in attacks and intimidation in Al-Najaf that have highlighted political differences among Shi'a political organizations.

The most notable of those attacks was a mob killing of a pro-U.S. cleric, Abd al-Majid al-Khoi, shortly after his return from exile in London in early April. Al-Khoi was himself the son of another extremely powerful former grand ayatollah, Abolqassem al-Khoi.

Al-Khoi was murdered as he emerged from the city's Imam Ali Mosque in a gesture of reconciliation with the mosque's custodian, who was popularly considered to have collaborated with Hussein's regime. The custodian was killed along with al-Khoi and it is unclear whether al-Khoi was an assassination target or was struck down because he tried to defend the other man.

Immediately after al-Khoi's murder, supporters of al-Sadr surrounded the house of another grand ayatollah in Al-Najaf, Ali Sistani, in what was taken to be a gesture of intimidation. Sistani -- who has said that Shi'a leaders should limit themselves to religious questions and stay out of politics -- went into hiding and only re-emerged after tribesmen loyal to him raced to Al-Najaf.

Correspondent Haidari says that after the attack on al-Khoi and the siege at Sistani's house, religious leaders in Al-Najaf sought to smooth relations between all parties to prevent further unrest:

"The Shi'a leaders in Al-Najaf tried to calm down the situation and tried to fix the relations between the different parties in order not to go further with the disagreements and differences between the al-Sadr followers and those of al-Hakim and Sistani," Haidari said.

He continued: "They tried to bring them together and al-Sadr condemned the attack on Abd Majid al-Khoi and said that it is ridiculous to say that our followers are the people who did it."

The two other living grand ayatollahs, who along with al-Hakim and Sistani comprise the four most powerful clerics in Iraq, are Muhammad Ishaq Fayadh and Bashir Hussein al-Najafi. Both rarely speak on political issues. All four are based in the Shi'a seminary -- the 'Hawza' -- in Al-Najaf, which is the highest religious authority of Iraq's majority Shi'a population. Their followers regard them as sources for religious emulation and their written opinions can carry the force of law.

With suspicion in yesterday's bomb attack on al-Hakim now divided between Hussein loyalists and the rival Shi'a group of al-Sadr, the incident is only likely to deepen the uncertainty and distrust that currently make Washington's task of creating a stable, post-Hussein Iraq so difficult.

The attacks show that while most of the world's attention is on Baghdad in the wake of the massive bombing of the UN headquarters last week, Iraq's political wars are neither confined to the capital nor to targeting foreigners and coalition troops. They also aim at settling differences between domestic groups vying for power, even as the coalition seeks to begin moving the country toward future national elections.

U.S. civil administrator for Iraq L. Paul Bremer said last week that it will be six to eight months before a constitution can be adopted and general elections held.