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Blast at Mosque Kills An Outspoken Cleric
Followers Also Perish; U.S. Denies Role
By Anthony Shadid and Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 2, 2003; Page A01
FALLUJAH, Iraq, July 1 -- A powerful explosion that ripped through the compound of a Sunni Muslim mosque in this restive city killed its preacher and at least six students drawn by his calls for a religious war to expel U.S. troops from Iraq, U.S. officials, residents and the victims' relatives said today.
The cause of the blast at the Hassan mosque Monday night has not been determined. U.S. officials said an investigation was underway.
At least one Fallujah resident and some U.S. soldiers suggested that the victims of the blast were manufacturing explosives in a three-room cinder-block building next to the mosque. Hospital officials said that the extensive burns suffered by the victims and lack of shrapnel wounds suggested that explosive or incendiary material had detonated accidentally inside the building.
That explanation, if proved, would be the clearest indicator yet of involvement by Islamic activists in the simmering guerrilla war in Iraq, adding another dimension to a conflict that U.S. officials say has been driven almost entirely by remnants of ousted president Saddam Hussein's avowedly secular government.
Relatives and angry residents, however -- some chanting "America is the enemy of God" -- blamed the explosion on U.S. forces, and some said they saw the flash of a missile or heard the drone of aircraft immediately before the blast.
U.S. officials denied they were responsible. "We did not bomb it," said Capt. John Ives of the 3rd Infantry Division in Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad. "It was not dropped by an airplane, nor was it dropped by a helicopter, nor was it fired by a tank. The blast did not come from an external source."
The blast devastated the mosque compound, which is bordered by palm and fig trees. The explosion blew off a 30-foot chunk of the outside wall, carved a 10-foot-high hole into the mosque's facade and shattered windows of nearby houses. The front of a carpentry shop was torn off. Nothing remained of the part of the building where the blast occurred -- a room for the mosque custodian, another room for religious study and a closet for the generator. Piles of rubble and tangled steel rods littered the courtyard.
Thousands poured into the streets today, firing guns into the air, during funerals for those killed. They called for revenge in a city seething with resentment since late April, when U.S. troops killed 17 Iraqis during two protests. U.S. soldiers say tensions here have subsided lately, although they have continued to face, on average, two to three attacks a week.
Speaking to reporters today, L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq, said he believed that some anti-occupation forces have connections to al Qaeda, Iran and "other countries in the region."
But he contended that the great majority of attacks on U.S. troops -- daily ambushes, shootings and hit-and-run raids -- are driven by a "small remnant of diehard opponents" loyal to the former government. He said attempts to sabotage such civilian infrastructure as electricity and oil pipelines would only further weaken their position, and he dismissed suggestions that the attacks reflected broader opposition to the occupation.
"We're going to do our best to capture and kill these people before they make these attacks," he said.
At least six U.S. soldiers were wounded today in two attacks in the Baghdad area, the military said. In one incident, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at two Humvees in the Mustansiryah neighborhood, wounding three soldiers.
About 12 miles south of the capital, witnesses, said a U.S. military truck was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, wounding three soldiers.
In western Baghdad, U.S. troops shot and killed two Iraqis when their car failed to stop at a checkpoint.
Since May 1, when major combat operations were declared ended, 31 U.S. and British military personnel have been killed in attacks and 178 wounded, said Army Col. Guy Shields, a U.S. military spokesman. More than 150,000 U.S. troops are now deployed throughout a country roughly the size of California, with one-third of them stationed in Baghdad.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a member of a Senate delegation visiting Iraq, said he believed there were enough troops in the country to handle the escalating violence along with peacekeeping and reconstruction duties. "The boots on the ground as of now are adequate," he said.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence, said conversations with military officials here indicated U.S. troops could be in Iraq "for the long run."
"There is a probability that the American people are going to need to adjust, as Congress will also, to the fact that things could get worse before they get better," he told reporters in Baghdad.
The blast at the Fallujah mosque could serve as a sign that the conflict is becoming more complicated.
Shields put the dead in the blast at 10 and said four others were wounded. Jabbar Rashid, deputy director of the Fallujah General Hospital, said the blast killed six and wounded four.
One of those wounded, Laith Khalil, 35, the preacher, died this afternoon in Baghdad after an 18-hour odyssey that took him to seven hospitals in three cities -- Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi. He suffered extensive burns to his face and body and lost his lower right leg in the blast, which also appeared to have crushed his chest, doctors said.
Since the U.S. capture of Baghdad on April 9, Khalil had gained a reputation in Fallujah for his denunciations of the U.S. occupation. Unlike many other preachers in the city, he was blunt in calling for Muslims to resist, often proclaiming jihad, or holy war, residents said. Hundreds packed the mosque and the courtyard outside to hear his Friday sermons.
"The report on that particular mosque is not good. It's anti-coalition," said Ives, the infantry captain.
Residents in the neighborhood said the preacher was reflecting popular sentiment.
"He asked for every Muslim, young and old, to wage jihad against the Americans," said Jassim Bidiwi, 45, a lawyer who lives in the neighborhood. "The sheik is against the occupation. Every Muslim is against the occupation."
Khalil's teachings appeared to have drawn a group of students, including Hisham Jassem, a lanky 25-year-old with short-cropped hair and a beard, who lay today in a bed at Baghdad's Adnan Hospital with a broken leg. His eyes were swollen shut, his mouth was caked with scabs and his nose dripped blood.
Relatives at the hospital said he and the other students at the mosque studied together at the Islamic Law College at Saddam University in Ramadi, west of Fallujah along the Euphrates River. For the past week, they had traveled each day to see Khalil, a graduate of the college.
The students were in their twenties and thirties, and many appeared to have come from religious backgrounds, not uncommon in the fiercely conservative Sunni areas of western Iraq. Mohammed Hajjaj, Jassem's grandfather, said Jassem became religious at the age of 8 and hoped to become the sheik of a mosque in Fallujah. All the students, he said, were incensed by the presence of U.S. troops in the country.
"Of course he didn't accept the occupation," said Qassem Hammadi, Jassem's uncle. "But who accepts the occupation?"
Some residents in Fallujah said they believed the students at the mosque were infused with the militant preaching of Wahhabism, a strain of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia, but relatives denied that.
As his relatives looked at Jassem in the bed, his breathing labored, they insisted the attacks would grow.
"If someone comes and puts his boot on your head and enters your house, it breeds hatred," said Abdel-Sattar Hamdan.
Outside Baghdad's Jarrah Private Hospital, a group of 30 of Khalil's followers, many of them in turbans and white dishdashas, or long tunics, waited in the lobby for word on the cleric's fate. Anis Akram, a physician at the hospital who informed them of his death, said at least one spoke in Syrian-accented Arabic. They took Khalil's body for burial in a convoy of four gray minibuses.
Before they left, Akram recalled, "they threatened to attack the hospital."
Chandrasekaran reported from Baghdad.