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Home of Iraqi Shiite Cleric Is Bombed; 3 Die

Prominent leader, who has received death threats, escapes with minor injuries. Rivals and Hussein loyalists are possible suspects.

August 25, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson and Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — One of Iraq's most prominent Shiite clerics survived an apparent assassination attempt Sunday when a bomb exploded at his home in the holy city of Najaf, killing three guards and wounding 10 other people.

An aide to Mohammed Saeed Hakim said the cleric was scratched in the face by debris but that his wounds were not serious. He was evacuated to a safe location, said Hamid Bayati, a spokesman for the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Hakim is one of several clerics who have received death threats, possibly from rival Shiite factions. But Bayati said it was too early to speculate who placed the bomb -- a relatively crude device using a common cooking-gas cylinder -- outside Hakim's home.

"It could have been Saddam loyalists, fundamentalist groups or rival Shiites," Bayati said by telephone from London. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq was headquartered in Iran before the fall of Saddam Hussein but is now a member of the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council.

Some Shiite leaders are angry at the group for cooperating with the U.S. occupation authorities by joining the council.

Although the cleric Hakim is not a political figure, he is the uncle of the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Tensions among Shiites, who make up about 60% of Iraq's 24 million people, have festered in Najaf since the April 9 fall of the Hussein regime, and on April 10 a crowd there stabbed and shot to death cleric Abdel Majid Khoei, who had returned from exile for a meeting to reconcile rival factions.

In the largely Shiite southern city of Basra, leaders blamed infiltrators from Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland for an ambush Saturday that left three British soldiers dead.

The assailants, wearing traditional Arab headdresses and riding in a red Chevrolet pickup, pulled up next to two British vehicles on a busy downtown street and opened fire with automatic weapons and a grenade, according to official and witness accounts.

"It was the evil-minded ones who prospered during the time of Saddam," said Wael Abdul-Latif, the governor of Basra province and a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. "They have come from Fallouja, Ramadi, Tikrit -- all these places," he added, naming three central and western Iraq areas where anti-coalition sentiment is strong and attacks against U.S. forces have been frequent.

A spokesman for the multinational force in Basra said it was too early to speculate on who the attackers were.

But visitors to Abdul-Latif's office agreed with the governor that Sunni "mercenaries" from the north had been infiltrating the region to spread the insurgency among a Shiite population that welcomed the fall of Hussein. The officials offered no solid evidence, only anecdotes and rumors.

"It is well known that they are offering 1 million dinars [about $555] for any act of sabotage or attack against coalition forces," said Kadhum Mubarak, a municipal official from Qurnah, an hour's drive north. "We know they are coming in to provoke these attacks."

Officials said they had heard that such provocateurs were renting homes in the Basra area to stage their operations.

"Our intelligence indicates they are coming to live among us with the plan of attacking the coalition," said Sheik Mohammed Abood Mattury, who heads the religious affairs office in Basra.

Other speculation focused on smugglers of diesel fuel, many tied to the Hussein regime, who may resent a coalition crackdown on the vast enterprise in black-market diesel.

*

Wilkinson reported from Baghdad and McDonnell from Basra.

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