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Thousands Gather in Baghdad for Shi'ite Leader's Funeral


In Iraq, thousands of mourners gathered in Baghdad Sunday for the funeral of a prominent Shi'ite cleric. He was killed Friday, along with more than 80 followers, in a bomb blast in the central Iraqi city of Najaf. The mourners, many of them beating their breasts in a traditional gesture of grief, surged through the streets of northern Baghdad's Kadhimiya district Sunday. They were following the coffin of Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim, which was draped with black cloth and covered by a green flag.

The ayatollah, one of Iraq's most influential Shi'ite clerics, was killed when a car bomb exploded after Friday prayers outside of Najaf's Imam Ali Mosque, one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest sites. Many of his followers blame groups loyal to former President Saddam Hussein for the attack.

Iraqi police say they have arrested four men - two Iraqis and two Saudis - in connection with the explosion.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have expressed condolences and outrage over the attack, which they blame on groups trying to undermine stability in Iraq. Many officials fear it is part of an increasingly violent campaign to enflame sectarian tensions, thwart reconstruction and undermine stability in the war-torn country.

A member of the appointed Iraqi Governing Council and brother of the assassinated cleric, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, urged the mourners on Sunday to avoid seeking vengeance and to reject any effort to divide the Iraqi people.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim told the followers that the Iraqis are one people, whether Shiite, Sunni, Kurdish or Turkoman. And he urged them to continue to work for the unity and reconstruction of the nation.

Many Iraqis say they also hold U.S.-led coalition forces responsible for the attack on the Imam Ali Mosque because, they say, the forces have failed to maintain security in the country after deposing Saddam Hussein.

American military officials say they have not deployed troops at religious sites, at the request of Muslim leaders who do not want non-Muslims near their holy shrines. However, officials said Saturday they are forming a special force of 400 Iraqi troops that will guard holy sites.

The coffin of Ayatollah Baqir al-Hakim is to be carried to Karbala, the site of another Shi'ite holy shrine, before being returned to Najaf for burial.

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