Shiites mourning murdered leader, bombing victims chant, "Down with America"

Fred Feldman ffeldman at
Tue Sep 2 21:43:11 MDT 2003

'Down with America' chants crowd as Shia Muslims mourn dead
 By Damien McElroy in Najaf
(Filed: 31/08/2003) SUNDAY TELEGRAPH

Packed into buses, pick-up trucks, taxis and cars, an estimated
500,000 mourners descended on the holy city of Najaf yesterday for the
burial of Iraq's leading Shia cleric who was among at least 80 people
killed by a car bomb on Friday.

>From dawn, a ceaseless stream of traffic clogged the roads around the
sprawling cemetery of mud brick tombs. Devastated followers of
Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim walked the final mile to the sacred
shrine of Imam Ali where the huge blast claimed the life of the key
American ally.

The crowds beat their chests in sorrow and denounced the American-led
occupation of Iraq. Chants of "down with America" filled the air as
two white lorries carried away the charred remains of the cars used in
the attack. Some carried coffins wrapped in black shrouds bearing
verses from the Koran.

In turn abject and ecstatic, mourners demanded that Iraqi Shi'ites
seize control of the country. "We cannot remain silent any more," said
Hassan Abu Ali. "We must do something I will not allow our enemies to
sleep peacefully any more."

The bombed shrine contains the tomb of Ali, the son-in-law and cousin
of Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam. Fragments of metal and
glass embedded in the mosque's intricate mosaics bore witness to the
ferocious blast; thousands of shoes lay outside the mosque, left
behind by worshippers at Friday prayers and scattered in all
directions by the bomb.

At the city mortuary, one man came to identify his brother from body
parts recovered from the rubble. "Why him and why now?" asked the man,
who gave his name only as Haidar. "We survived 30 years of Saddam to
be murdered like this?" In the wake of the murderous bomb attacks on
the the Jordanian embassy and the United Nations offices in Baghdad,
the latest atrocity has dealt a further devastating blow to efforts by
the American-led coalition authority to impose order on the country.
It has also torn apart the majority Shia population.

The ayatollah's grieving followers first directed their anger at
Saddam Hussein, believing that his loyalists had murdered an old foe
who returned from exile in Iran only after the dictator's overthrow.

Then yesterday Iraqi police blamed the attack on two pro-Saddam
fighters and two foreign Arabs with links to Osama bin Laden's
al-Qa'eda terror network that promotes the alternative strand of Sunni
Islam. Many suspect the ayatollah's Shia rivals.

Whoever planted the bomb, however, his followers quickly apportioned
overall blame to the American occupiers who they held to be
responsible for failing to provide security.

"Saddam, Wahabi [strict Sunni Islam], America and Israel: all of them
are responsible for this terrible attack on an amazing scholar and
leader," said Ghazi Wahan as he made his way to the shrine after a
four-hour overnight journey from Basra to Najaf. "No to America. No to
Saddam. Revenge for Islam."

Yet only a short distance from the thronged city centre, traffic was
light on the road into Najaf from Baghdad and Kerbala, Iraq's second
holiest city. The Shia populations there are loyal to Muqtader
al-Sadr, a young rabble-rouser who has rejected the United States
occupation and spurned all attempts to involve him in the political

Ayatollah al-Hakim had close links to Iran and its conservative
supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, but nevertheless had become a
cornerstone of coalition plans to implant democracy in Iraq. The
involvement of his movement, the Supreme Council for Islamic
Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), in the new interim government gave
much-needed credibility to the troubled political process.

He had imposed a restraining hand on his followers, urging them to
tolerate the American occupation in return for a quick transfer of
power. But he is now gone and they are openly angry at the presence of
US and British troops.

More worrying than this for the White House, Downing Street and the
coalition leaders in Baghdad's Republican Palace, his mantle as Iraq's
leading Shia holy man has now passed to the 23-year-old al-Sadr.

Despite his youth and lack of religious standing, al-Sadr has gained
enormous popularity since the fall of Saddam with his fierce anti-US

Yesterday he urged his supporters to stay at home in protest at
coalition rule. "I call on the people to strike from work for three
days in a peaceful way," he said. "Say nothing and do nothing without
consulting Islamic scholars."

He has formally condemned the attack on al-Hakim: "Curse by God those
who hate Shia and Islam. The Ba'athists are the only people who seek
benefit from this terrible act."

The message also contained a stinging rebuke of the occupation
authorities. "Be it known that America will not provide security for
Iraq and will not let us do it," the statement went on. "It's the
enemy of us, of you and of all believers."

Al-Sadr owes his authority to his blood-stained lineage. Grand
Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, his father, is known as the Friday
Martyr, since he was gunned down by Saddam's agents in 1999 after he
defied the dictator by giving sermons following weekly prayers in
Najaf. Photographs of the Grand Ayatollah and his uncle, who was also
killed by Saddam, are the most common images on Iraqi streets.

Meanwhile, seven American soldiers were wounded early yesterday when
their vehicles hit a mine near the Syrian border. A day earlier, a US
soldier died in an attack near Baghdad, the 65th killed in action
since May 1.

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