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Bombing at Iraqi Shrine Appears Carefully Planned
By Anthony Shadid and Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 31, 2003; Page A01
NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 30 -- Investigators suspect the devastating bomb that tore through a crowded street along Iraq's most sacred Shiite Muslim shrine, killing a prominent religious leader and scores of others, was packed in a car parked for as long as 24 hours along a curbside and probably detonated by remote control, a senior U.S. official said today.
In an attempt to forestall another car bombing -- Friday's was the third in less than a month -- U.S. forces will begin patrolling the grounds of the Imam Ali shrine within days, a task they have so far avoided given religious sensitivities and the prospect of another flashpoint in a city already on edge, said Maj. Rick Hall, executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines.
The recent blasts have sent a deep shudder through Iraq and badly undermined faith in officials of the U.S.-led occupation. Investigators have yet to determine how the bombs in the two previous bombings in Baghdad were detonated.
The latest strike appeared to have combined a clear objective -- the assassination of Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim -- with the means and precise planning necessary to carry it out.
Hall put the toll from the bombing at 125 dead. Safah Hamdi Amidi, the director of the Teaching Hospital, Najaf's largest, said he believed the toll remained 95, but cautioned that the true number may not be known. Many bodies were burned or mutilated beyond recognition by the force of the blast, which sheared off the facades of stores, hurled cars on to the sidewalk and blasted off intricate turquoise tiles on the shrine's portico. In a morgue without refrigeration, he said, corpses were decaying rapidly.
Citing information provided at a closed-door, three-hour city council meeting, Hall said the bomb may have been packed in a sport-utility vehicle or a BMW. The military has yet to identify the explosives or gather forensic evidence from the site, he said. But police in Najaf said they believed the bomb was made of the same explosives used in the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy on Aug. 7 and one at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on Aug. 19. The FBI has said the explosives in the U.N. bombing were Soviet-era munitions that included artillery shells, mortars, grenades and a 500-pound bomb of the kind dropped by an aircraft.
Hall said a police officer had spotted the car the day before, already parked along a nearby curb. He said he doubted it was detonated by a suicide bomber, and instead may have been triggered by remote control from a nearby hotel. Hall said such careful plotting, if true, would mark "an increase in sophistication" by the attackers, who are unknown.
A day after the bombing, thousands poured into this city to mourn Hakim, the son of one of Iraq's most esteemed religious clerics and the leader of a U.S.-allied group that has served as a crucial interlocutor with Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority.
In small circles around the gold-domed shrine, impromptu protests erupted, as men beat their chests in grief and shouted in devotion to God. Some carried portraits of Hakim, his aquiline face and long gray beard distinct. At the shrine's varnished doors, still closed to the public, gaggles of mourners sobbed against its brass handles and kissed the tiles next to it for blessings. On the sidewalks, along a street still strewn with debris from the blast, pilgrims prayed on cardboard or tattered carpets.
"We'll stay here until we see his funeral," said Alaa Abdel-Emir, 27, who drove an hour this morning from Hilla in a flatbed truck with 25 other mourners, each paying about 50 cents for the ride.
In leaflets posted around the city, where roadblocks kept traffic away from the downtown area, Hakim's followers announced that his funeral would begin Sunday at another sacred shrine in Baghdad. Over three days, the procession will make its way to Karbala, another holy city, then nearby Kufa and finally Najaf, where Hakim returned in May after 23 years of exile in Iran.
Hakim's body has yet to be recovered, Amidi said. On Friday night, a clerical colleague of Hakim's took the doctor to the blast site in a search for body parts and some identifying relics -- rings or clothing. The search was futile. . Hours later, the colleague brought a bag to the hospital containing what he said may have been flesh of the perished ayatollah.
Through the city, the lack of positive identification gave life to rumors -- some voiced forcefully -- that the 64-year-old cleric had somehow survived, leaving with his driver and two bodyguards in his light blue sport utility vehicle after Friday prayers.
Others found the talk distasteful, and offered their own proof. Abu Islam Saghir, Hakim's spokesman in Najaf, said a single stone from his prayer beads was found at the site. Others said his amber ring, his pen or his watch were found in the street and that his papers were strewn in the muck of charred debris and blood that gathered along the shrine's walls of blue and tan brick.
By nightfall, two people were in custody, both of them Iraqis, said Hussein Yassim Hamed, the Najaf police chief. Hall, the Marine officer, said the men were questioned by U.S. forces, but he expressed doubt they were involved. They identified themselves as residents of the southern city of Basra and were picked up two hours after the bombing at a restaurant near the shrine.
"It seems these guys were in the wrong place at the wrong time," he said. "I don't think anything's going to come of that."
Hall said U.S. forces would probably begin patrolling the area around the shrine within days, pending approval of Najaf's senior clerics. Hall said he believed their approval is assured. He acknowledged the sensitivity of the presence of U.S. troops, but said the bombing had reversed reservations expressed for months by city council members and tribal leaders. By Tuesday, he said, a force of 400 newly trained police will also begin patrolling the shrines in Najaf and Karbala and offering protection to the clerics.
Hall offered three scenarios for those behind the attack: former Baath Party operatives working with foreigners, rivals of Hakim within the Shiite community and his former allies in Iran seeking "some sort of retribution."
"There's some plausibility for each one of those so we're going to look at the evidence we're able to acquire," he said.
Inside the shrine, the moment of the attack was frozen in time. Sandals and shoes were tossed on the marble floors, scattered amid pieces of blue and white tile and chunks of concrete. Persian prayer rugs were in various states of disorder -- rolled up, spread out or crumpled and tossed to the side by crowds fleeing in panic. A burned fender sat before the gold-sheathed tomb of Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad who Shiites believe was his heir, and another piece of a car dangled from a second-story marble balcony.
From the doors, wails of mourners outside, some beating their chests, echoed off the tiled walls.
Every so often, they came together in a protest, some carrying a black flag with the name of Ali's son, Hussein, who was killed in a 7th century battlefield, a death that remains at the heart of the Shiite narrative of suffering and martyrdom. Dozens of pictures of Hakim, flooding vendors' stands next to the shrines, were snapped up for about 30 cents. Along storefronts, most of them shuttered in mourning, owners strung black banners.
"Our leader Hakim is gone! We want the blood of the killers of Hakim!" one crowd shouted.
In small circles, mourners gathered to debate who was responsible. Some shouted and others whispered theories that ran the gamut of possibilities -- Sunni Muslim militants hostile to Shiites, Iran, Israel, the United States and Hussein loyalists.
"We demand the Americans expel all the spies inside Iraq and close the borders," said Sayid Hakim Abu Raghif, 57, a tribal leader from Baghdad. "Today is a warning, tomorrow is vengeance."
Like others, he blamed U.S. forces for failing to provide security. Their sentiments coursed through crowds, at once anxious and fearful over what lay ahead in a country many contend is adrift and vulnerable.
"I'm nervous, the whole city is nervous," said Abu Essam Bahr Ulum, a 62-year-old Najaf resident standing near the shrine, where workers shoveled debris into tractors and hauled away the charred carcasses of cars. "I swear to God, I expect more disasters."
Many refused to accept the possibility that rivalries among Shiites were to blame. However fierce the contest for power, no Shiite could desecrate a shrine so sacred to the faith. More often, they pointed to loyalists of Hussein or Wahhabis, a Sunni Muslim fundamentalist sect dominant in Saudi Arabia with a history of enmity toward Shiites.
"The Baath Party is still here," said Mohammed Hassan, 35. "There is chaos here, there is no control."
In an intersection in nearby Hilla, a banner blamed Wahhabis. Underneath was written, "Revenge, revenge, revenge."
U.S. officials both acknowledge that foreign provocateurs, saboteurs, guerrillas and terrorists have infiltrated Iraq and, given the length of Iraq's frontiers, that there is little American forces can do about it.
"It's kind of unrealistic for us to think that we would be able to stop any infiltration coming into this country," Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, said in an interview.