The Danger is Very Close
August 31, 2003
Babak Dehghanpisheh and Christopher Dickey
Be careful and alert, warned the Ayatollah, because the danger is very close to us. Above him rose the golden dome of the Imam Ali Mosque in the Iraqi city of Najaf, one of the holiest shrines in Islam.
The ayatollah, Mohamad Baqir al Hakim, had waited through more than two decades of Iranian exile to return here to worship with his followers and to shape the destiny of his country. The American overthrow of Saddam Hussein gave him that chance. His younger brother now sits on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. But with Iraq sliding toward chaos, al Hakim saw the risks ahead for him and for his people. He spoke passionately, on the edge of tears. One day, he said, our movement may be wiped out.
MINUTES LATER the turbaned cleric left the mosque through its south gate. A handful of bodyguards flanked him, their walkie-talkies to their ears, shouldering through masses of worshipers toward a street where vendors sold posters of Shiite Islams martyred heroes. Among them were pictures of 24 relatives of al Hakims murdered by Saddam, superimposed on a map of Iraq dripping with blood. the hakim family, it read. a family of knowledge and martyrdom.
A Toyota Land Cruiser waited for him, just ahead. But before al Hakim and his entourage could drive off, a thunderous blast ripped through the area, shooting a plume of flame into the sky and peppering the inlaid brick walls of the ancient mosque with burning shrapnel. The whole street turned into fire, says Abdul Halim Amer, 35, an engineer who sustained severe burns and a large gash on his head. There was nowhere to run. The explosion, thought to be a car bomb, left a three-foot crater in the asphalt and mangled cars within a 30-foot radius.
When a NEWSWEEK reporter arrived on the scene, some of the wounded and the dead lay in the street; female victims were wrapped in their black abayas or covered in bright cloth from a nearby market. The air was heavy with the stink of blood and fuel. We could barely recognize Sayed Hakims body, says Sheik Haqil Zalemi, 40, a Najaf cleric. It was obvious he was finished. At least 84 others were also killed, and more than 140 wounded. As one ambulance pulled away from the scene, a man in a bloodied white tunic ran close behind, beating himself on the head and asking, Who? Who could have done this?
It was the third devastating bomb attack by a faceless enemyor enemiesin less than a month, and in many ways the greatest challenge yet to American hopes that Iraq can soon be stabilized. Since major combat operations ended on May 1, American forces have taken casualties almost daily, mainly at the hands of loosely organized Sunni guerrilla groups identified with the old regime. The attacks on the Jordanian Embassy and the U.N. headquarters targeted Americas international allies. Now a key leader of the Shiite majority in the country, who had broadly supported the American efforts, is gone. And his death could easily widen the bitter rifts among Iraqis themselves, not only turning Shiite against Sunni, but Shiite against Shiite.
No clear culprits in the earlier bombings have yet been found, and its far too early to say who was behind this one. In Washington, some right-wingers are already pointing the finger at Iran. They suggest it may have wanted to retaliate against a former client who was growing too friendly with the United States. On the ground, officials connected with the Coalition and its appointed Iraqi council dismissed such speculation. There is no doubt that this is the work of Saddam loyalists, the same people who did the U.N. bombing, says a spokesman for council member Ahmad Chalabi. Anyone who knows anything about Islam will tell you that no Shia would ever put a bomb in the shrine of Imam Ali. This is the holiest place for Shias outside Mecca, and it is simply inconceivable that this could be an Iranian or inter-Shia attack.
Yet after 35 years of totalitarian rule, its hard for many Iraqis to parse verifiable facts from conspiratorial rumors. Sanctity didnt stop Shiite killers from murdering another prominent ayatollah near the same shrine in April. What will matter now, as the Americans and friendly Shiite leaders try to calm the current situation, is who people think was responsible for al Hakims death. And already some are blaming the United States.
Especially worrisome are statements attributed to Moqtada al-Sadr, the son of a revered ayatollah murdered by Saddam in 1999. Although he has little religious standing, al-Sadr has shown himself capable of rallying enormous, impassioned crowds to his anti-American banner. The Americans will not protect our clerics nor let us provide that protection because the Americans are the enemy, said a spokesman for al-Sadr, speaking on Al Arabiya television after Fridays bombing.
Then again, many Iraqis, including residents of Najaf, believe it was al-Sadr who ordered the earlier murder near the Imam Ali shrine and possibly last weeks attack. Rival Shiite leaders say privately that al-Sadrs organization was penetrated by Saddams agents in the 1990s. These leaders suspect that the group may still harbor covert Saddam supporters. And the murkiness doesnt end there. Because al-Sadr is not himself a high-ranking Islamic scholar, he depends on another ayatollah to give his organization religious direction and credibility: Kadhem al-Husseini al-Haeri, who is based in Iran.
The challenge for the American occupiers is to navigate this maze of theological and political conspiracy. After the Friday bombing, Coalition chief L. Paul Bremer III blamed nameless enemies of the new Iraq, and offered deepest sympathy to the families of the dead and injured. It was heartfelt, well meant. But not nearly enough. The danger now is that even those Iraqis who have cooperated with Americawho have hoped that American forces can somehow stop the madnesswill lose faith.
With Mark Hosenball in Washington and Christian Caryl in Baghdad http://www.msnbc.com/news/959550.asp
" Because al-Sadr is not himself a high-ranking Islamic scholar, he depends on another ayatollah to give his organization religious direction and credibility: Kadhem al-Husseini al-Haeri, who is based in Iran."
Every scrap of information helps to fill in the blanks.
Babak Dehghanpisheh and Christopher Dickey need to "keep the faith".