NAJAF (Reuters)–A car bombing killed 75 Iraqis–including a top Shi’ite Muslim leader–on Friday in an apparent assassination that dealt a grave blow to the US occupation and left carnage at the holiest shrine of Shi’ism.
The blast tore through worshippers as they streamed away from Friday prayers in the Imam Ali mosque in the holy city of Najaf. It was by far the worst such atrocity in Iraq since the US-led war toppled Saddam Hussein in April.
In the aftermath–Iraqis burrowed into rubble strewn with body parts in a hunt for survivors. Volunteers screaming "God is Great" pulled out a severed foot and dug frantically around a deep crater filled with twisted metal and stinking black water.
Some supporters of the slain Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim–63–leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)–blamed Saddam loyalists.
But some commentators pointed to bitter faction-fighting among Iraq’s long-repressed Shi’ite majority that has raged in Najaf since the end of the war.
Hakim was for many the leading Shi’ite figure in Iraq and his cooperation with the US-led administration through its Governing Council was seen as crucial to US efforts to stabilize the country and install democratic rule.
"We have at least 75 dead and that could go up to 80 because of severe injuries. There are 142 wounded," Dr. Safaa al-Aneedi–director of the Najaf teaching hospital–told Reuters.
Three gutted cars lay in the street by the mosque. Some witnesses said there had been more than one explosion.
Witnesses said Hakim had been about to drive away from Friday prayers when the blast destroyed his car. A US military spokesman confirmed there had been a bomb. "No coalition forces were in the area or on the ground because it is considered to be sacred ground,” he said.
The attack is the latest in a series of bloody incidents in Najaf–several of them aimed at religious leaders of the Shi’ite branch of Islam followed by a majority of Iraqis.
On Sunday three men were killed in a bombing that injured Hakim’s uncle–also a cleric associated with SCIRI. Some SCIRI supporters blamed that bomb on a rival Shi’ite leader opposed to the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.
The Shi’ite power struggle in Najaf is viewed as one of the keys to the future of Iraq. Washington is keen to discourage those Shi’ite leaders who favor Islamic clerical rule like that of Shi’ite Iran–where many lived in exile during Saddam’s rule.
With many Iraqis belonging to Saddam’s once dominant Sunni Arab minority or to other ethnic and religious groups like Kurds and Christians–the prospect of domination by the 60 percent Shi’ite majority is one that many regard with anxiety.
"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," said Ali Ansari–an expert on Iran at Britain’s Durham University.
"The repercussions within the Shi’ite community will be problematic for the British because they are in control of the south."
Hamid al-Bayati–SCIRI’s London representative–said: "It could be either Saddam loyalists using new techniques such as remote control or even suicide bombs–or it could be another extreme group.
"We proposed to the allies a long time ago…to have a special security organization to protect the holy places and the religious scholars," he said. "The allies did not respond to this proposal."
At the scene–some called for a stronger American presence around holy places where a few months ago Shi’ites demonstrated to keep the troops away. "The world is going to be turned upside down after this.
This is our holiest site,” said Qusay Jaber. "If the Americans don’t secure our sites anything is possible. We will stage an uprising."
Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim was tortured under Saddam’s rule and spent more than 20 years in exile in Iran before returning to Iraq earlier this year after the US-led victory over Saddam.
"We deplore this horrible act of terrorist violence," said a White House official. "We will not be deterred in our efforts to help the Iraqi people rebuild their country and establish a representative democratic government."
US TROOPS AMBUSHED
Further north–guerrillas ambushed a US military convoy with rocket-propelled grenades on Friday–killing a soldier and wounding three others amid growing calls for a United Nations force to pacify the country.
A US Army spokesman’said the six-vehicle convoy was attacked on a main road near the town of Baquba–part of the so-called explore a new UN resolution to encourage nations to send troops.
In Britain–an opinion poll on Friday showed support for Prime Minister Tony Blair had plunged during the controversy surrounding the suicide of a weapons expert caught up in a row between the BBC and the government over the Iraq war.
Blair’s much-criticized media spokesman Alastair Campbell announced his resignation on Friday.