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Thousands Mourn Iraqi Shi'ite Leader - 2003-08-30


In Iraq, thousands of mourners have been flocking to the mosques in the holy city of Najaf to begin burying the more than 100 people who died in Friday's car bombing at the Imam Ali Mosque. Several thousand people gathered Saturday at the mosque, one of Shia Islam's holiest shrines, for the funeral of the spiritual leader of one of Iraq's most powerful Shia groups, Ayatollah Mohamed Baqir al-Hakim, who was killed in the blast.

It was late morning and the sun was already beating hard on the brick buildings of Najaf as residents gathered to mourn their dead.

Near one of the gates of the ancient wall that surrounds the Imam Ali mosque, women wailed in grief.

A man sobbed openly while others beat their fists on the thick wooden door to the shrine, which remained closed. They were there to mourn Ayatollah Mohamed Baqir al-Hakim, who was killed along with many of his followers in a bomb attack as he left Friday prayers.

Emotions are running high and the anger of these people, who were heavily oppressed under the regime of Saddam Hussein, burns hot.

One of the mourners, Ali Hussein Ali, 50, said he believes many are responsible for Friday's attack.

Mr. Ali said he suspects Israel; he suspects the Wahabi, followers of a puritanical form of Sunni Islam. He said he suspects followers of Saddam Hussein. And he said he suspects the American forces who he says acted in the name of Saddam Hussein. He said he is a time bomb ready to explode, and warned the authorities to move quickly to find what he calls the cowards who did this deed.

Another mourner, Hussein Ali Hussein, 40, explained why the U.S.-led coalition forces are also being blamed.

Mr. Hussein said the coalition forces are responsible because under international law, occupation forces are responsible for security. He called on coalition leaders and the appointed Iraqi Governing Council to recruit more Iraqis for the military and police in order to increase security.

U.S. military officials say coalition troops do not patrol this area at the request of religious leaders, who do not want foreign troops near one of their holiest sites.

Around the corner of the shrine, workers were still cleaning up from the blast.

A worker swept up glass and debris while others hosed down the pavement. The massive wall of the shrine sustained only superficial damage, but several buildings across the street were destroyed, and a one-meter crater in the pavement marked the place where the bomb went off.

A few blocks from the shrine, the great cemetery of Najaf stretches for kilometers across the desert hills, as far as the eye can see. Over the centuries, millions of Shia followers have been buried here, in the same place as some of their greatest martyrs. Over the coming days, the remains of the victims of Friday's bomb attack will also be brought here to join them.

A group of men chanted, "God is great. We want revenge for Ayatollah al-Hakim."

Senior Shiite leaders have called for restraint on the part of their followers, and Iraqi security forces are moving swiftly to make arrests.

U.S. and British leaders have condemned the attack as an act of terrorism. But many people in the region are furious, and there is talk of retaliation.

As a result, the leaders of the coalition authority and the Iraqi Governing Council who are trying to restore stability to Iraq are worried that the attack could upset the fragile balance of religious and political power in the country.