The death on 29 August of prominent Iraqi Shi'a leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim in a bomb blast that killed at least 83 other people further complicates Washington's already troubled efforts to stabilize and rebuild Iraq.
Washington, 1 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The third major bombing in Iraq this month has again underscored the difficulty Washington faces in establishing security in an occupied nation fragmented along ethnic and religious fault lines.
On Friday (29 August), a car bombing in the southern Shi'ite city of Al-Najaf killed at least 83 people, including leading Shi'ite Muslim cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, and left human remains strewn at the holiest site of Shi'a Islam, the Imam Ali Mosque.
Analysts say the attack, which follows massive bombings in Baghdad of the Jordanian Embassy and the United Nations, has dealt yet another blow to U.S. nation-building efforts at a time when Washington is seeking to win more international assistance for Iraq.
Anthony Cordesman, a former senior U.S. military and government official, is a scholar at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. He told RFE/RL, "I think we have to understand that every casualty, every dramatic event that sort of gives a global profile to violence in Iraq makes it just that much harder to obtain foreign support, to get contractors to work in Iraq, to attract NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], to get countries to volunteer troops."
Washington is currently seeking to persuade major countries at the United Nations to contribute troops and assistance to Iraq. But key nations like France and India refuse to do so unless the U.S. agrees to share power in Iraq with the UN, an idea opposed by Pentagon leaders.
But the Al-Najaf bombing could give some momentum to those in the Bush administration who do favor sharing power with the UN, said Peter Singer, a foreign policy analyst with the Brookings Institution.
With occupation costing $4 billion a month, Singer said Iraq is becoming a political liability for Bush. "Looking at historical precedent, the American public is willing to support efforts as long as they see signs of progress," he said. "And at least within the past couple of weeks, we haven't had a lot of positive news coming out of Iraq. And that's got to be the concern of the administration, is that they can't sell this as a job well done as long as they keep having these 'realities' step in."
So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, which experts say could be either the work of Saddam Hussein loyalists, foreign terrorists, or the result of a power struggle among Shi'ites.
Nor has there yet been any official reaction from Washington, though Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq, said the attackers had shown "the evil face of terrorism" by killing innocent Iraqis and "violating one of Islam's most sacred places."
Al-Hakim, who spent 23 years in exile in Iran and returned to Iraq after the war, was killed after giving a sermon on the importance of national unity.
Seen as a moderate Shiite who cooperated with Washington despite criticizing the U.S. occupation, al-Hakim headed the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a prominent anti-Hussein group and a leading Shi'ite political party.
Although SCIRI long advocated Islamic rule for Iraq, al-Hakim in recent months took a more moderate public stance, saying Iran's theocratic model was not suited for Iraq and a separation of religion and politics was possible. He avoided confrontation with the U.S. and his brother sits on the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council.
Speaking by telephone, SCIRI's representative in London, Hamed al-Bayati, told RFE/RL that he believes Hussein loyalists were behind the attack. He said the former regime had already arrested dozens of members of al-Hakim's family and assassinated his brother in 1998. "I think Saddam's loyalists are the only group who has got the means for such an attack, with explosives and a car remote control, which was planned outside the shrine of Imam Ali in the holy city of Najaf."
Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi largely agrees. In an interview with Reuters, the former exile and Shi'ite head of the Iraqi National Council said: "There's no doubt in my mind. It's Saddam, remnants of the Ba'athists and their new allies from across the border, the fundamentalists coming across to participate in these things."
Analyst Cordesman said the al-Hakim brothers were a natural target of Ba'athist loyalists bent on setting back U.S. reconstruction efforts. "They are certainly seen as symbols of those people who support the Governing Council and the U.S. nation-building effort, in terms of moving it forward, even if they opposed us on many detailed grounds," he said. "And they may see that this kind of provocation will force the United States to disperse more forces into the south, and make it even harder for the United States to have any kind of cohesive nation-building effort."
But another theory is that the attack could be the work of rival Shi'ite clerics. For his part, Chalabi rejected that notion, saying that no Iraqi Shi'ite would set off a bomb beside the holy Imam Ali Mosque.
But inter-Shi'ite violence has been rife. In April, two top Shi'ite clerics were assassinated in Al-Najaf, killings widely seen as part of a dispute among rival Shi'ite factions. And on 24 August, al-Hakim's uncle, Ayatollah Muhammad Sa'id al-Hakim, was wounded in a bomb attack at his office in Al-Najaf which killed three security guards. Some SCIRI supporters blamed that attack, which was close to the Imam Ali Mosque, on followers of rival Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr. His group denied the accusation.
But Ali Ansari, an Iran expert at Britain's Durham University, told Reuters, "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."
However, al-Bayati, SCIRI's London representative, said the attack would likely have a galvanizing effect on Shi'ites. "All the Iraqis and the Shi'a in particular will be very angry and upset about his death and I think they will put pressure on the allies to do something to maintain security and stability in the country," he said.
A U.S. military spokesman in Iraq told reporters that no coalition forces were in the area of the mosque at the time of the bombing "because it is considered to be sacred ground."