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Iraq: Al-Najaf Bombing Raises More Questions About Iraqis' Future

Many questions remain unanswered from the 29 August bomb blast in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Najaf that killed at least 83 people, including a leading Shi'a cleric. It's not yet clear who carried out the car bomb attack at the country's holiest shrine or what the motive was. It's also not clear how the attack -- the worst since the end of major combat operations in Iraq -- will change the political landscape for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

Prague, 1 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In the southern Iraqi city of Karbala today, thousands of Iraqi Shi'a took part in a three-day procession to mourn the death of leading cleric Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim.

Al-Hakim and at least 82 others were killed when a car bomb exploded near Iraq's holiest Shi'a shrine in the southern city of Al-Najaf on 29 August. The funeral procession will end there tomorrow, when al-Hakim will be buried.

Local police, as well as agents of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, are continuing to investigate the blast. No group has claimed responsibility and the motive is still unclear.

Unconfirmed reports say as many as 19 men have been detained so far. Little is known about the identities of the men. Some are said to be Iraqis with connections to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's ousted Ba'athist regime. Other reports say the detainees include Saudis, Jordanians, and other foreigners.

Al-Hakim was leader of one of the country's main Shi'a groups -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). He was considered a moderate who had supported cautious cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

His death has sent shock waves through the country, where Shi'a Muslims make up the majority of the population. The attack has also again raised uncomfortable questions about the U.S.-led coalition's ability to establish security in Iraq, more than four months after the end of major hostilities there.

The Al-Najaf bombing is the third in a string of major car bomb attacks in Iraq in the past month, following blasts at the United Nations headquarters and the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad. Neither of those bombings has been solved.

Theories abound as to the identity of the bombers. SCIRI leaders say they suspect Hussein loyalists. Hussein, in the past, had targeted al-Hakim, who was a strong critic of Saddam's regime from his Iranian exile.

A SCIRI representative in London, Hamid al-Bayati, tells RFE/RL that only Hussein's people had the motive and the ability to mount such an enormous bombing.

"They [Hussein loyalists] targeted the ayatollah for a long time, and they have been active in Iraq since the fall of the regime," he said. "So I think they are the most suspicious people in such an attack."

He continues: "Saddam's regime -- the followers of Saddam's regime -- are the only people who [have access to the huge quantity of explosives], remote controls, and the technology, etc. [to carry out such a large explosion]."

Meanwhile, an audiotape purporting to contain the voice of Hussein denies responsibility for the attack. The voice on the tape, broadcast today by the Al-Jazeera television channel, blames the U.S.-led occupation. Its authenticity cannot be confirmed:

"Many of you may have heard the snakes hissing, the servants of the invaders, occupiers, infidels, and how they hastened to accuse the followers of Saddam Hussein of responsibility for the attack on al-Hakim before they had any evidence."

Others see the hand of rival Shi'a leader Muqtada al-Sadr in the attack, though al-Sadr has been quick to distance himself from the bombing. The German magazine "Der Spiegel" today quotes him as condemning the attack "most strongly." Al-Sadr has been an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led occupation, a position that put him at odds with al-Hakim.

Still others suspect Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups who oppose U.S. interests around the world -- including, presumably, in Iraq. U.S. officials in recent days have stepped up comments blaming "terrorists" for the increasing violence in Iraq, although there has been little public evidence to support the assertion.

It's not clear yet what effect the blast will have on the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. Shi'a leaders were quick to blame the U.S. for failing to provide the country with sufficient security, though SCIRI and other groups say they will continue to cooperate with occupation forces.

Many are expressing hope the bombing will energize the U.S. to provide the country with more security.

The blast had at least one immediate consequence. The U.S. has indefinitely postponed turning over command of a multinational force in the region to Poland. Until recently, the Shi'a region around Al-Najaf had been considered relatively peaceful, compared with mostly Sunni areas north of the Iraqi capital.

Al-Hakim's death also raises questions for the future of SCIRI itself, which the U.S.-led coalition had been counting on to build support within the Shi'a community. Al-Bayati says that, despite the loss, SCIRI will maintain its seat on the Iraqi Governing Council and continue as a leading force in the country.

"Political activity is going to continue," he said. "There are still a leadership of 12 people and a general assembly of 100 people, and millions of supporters for the ayatollah and the organization. I think SCIRI will continue its mission."

The U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council took a step forward today, naming a 25-member interim cabinet. The group of ministers closely resembles the makeup of the Governing Council itself. The cabinet is to serve until elections can be held -- perhaps as early as next year.

No prime minister was named, and overall civilian authority in Iraq remains in the hands of U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.