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Discord May Be Deepening in Iraq

August 30, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — It may have been his tolerance for the U.S. occupation that made Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim a target.

Or, as a returned exile vying for power with entrenched Shiite factions, he might have incited extremist rivals to mass murder.

Or, he might have been the victim of Saddam Hussein loyalists bent on pitting factions of the Shiite Muslim majority against each other to divide and conquer their empowered enemies in the roiling politics of the new Iraq.

Whatever hand felled the revered cleric and scores more in the deadliest act of religious violence since Hussein was deposed in April, the aftermath threatens to sow deeper discord and instability, undermining the U.S.-led coalition's efforts to bring peace to a country it took over four months ago but has yet to pacify.

The attack is expected to raise tensions among Shiites, and between that group and the minority Sunni Muslims who oppressed Shiites under Hussein, and between Iraqis and American soldiers. The attack also brought the gears of government-building grinding to a halt. The 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, which was to have announced Cabinet appointments today, declared three days of official mourning.

Although Muqtader Sadr, a radical cleric in Baghdad, had been waging ideological battle with Hakim over the U.S.-led occupation, Iraqi Muslims expressed skepticism that any devout Islamic faction would attack even archenemies at Najaf's Imam Ali Mosque. It is the holiest Shiite place in the country.

Most suspicion settled on remnants of the former regime, because Hussein's Sunni followers routinely tortured, imprisoned and executed Shiites during the 35-year Baathist dictatorship that ended with the fall of Baghdad on April 9. The deposed leadership would have the most to gain by simultaneously outraging Shiite enemies and casting U.S. occupiers as inept in securing the peace.

Daily attacks on coalition convoys, electricity and water supplies and other infrastructure vital to the economy, such as an oil pipeline to Turkey, have embarrassed the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. Each act of sabotage further erodes public confidence and discredits the Governing Council and foreign occupiers as unable to guarantee law and order.

Even before the extent of Friday's bloodshed was known, Muslim leaders were calling on their followers to pursue the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Some called for revenge, raising the prospect of escalating clashes that could quickly overwhelm the already stretched coalition forces.

While in exile in Iran, Hakim helped form the Badr Brigade, a Shiite force that waged a limited guerrilla war against the Hussein regime. The exiles returned to Iraq after Hussein was deposed and served as a security force.

If the Najaf tragedy instigates further sectarian violence, the Bush administration may be compelled to look to U.N. peacekeepers to prevent widespread fighting and chaos. The Pentagon has so far refused to consider transforming its occupation into a peacekeeping operation under United Nations leadership. But such help might be necessary if the coalition, with 150,000 troops to contain 25 million Iraqis and administer a nation the size of California, decides it needs reinforcements. Ninety percent of the coalition forces are Americans, many already here for months and eager to return home.

"Those within the administration who are arguing for a bigger U.N. role certainly have had their hand strengthened," said Tamara Wittes, a Middle East expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged Iraqis to "refrain from further acts of violence and revenge," condemning the Najaf attack as the work of criminal extremists. In a rebuke to the Bush administration, Annan's statement added that "only a credible, inclusive and transparent political process can lead to peace and stability in Iraq."

Shiite leaders accused Hussein supporters of orchestrating the bombing, but they also blamed the coalition for failing to ensure the security for which they are legally responsible following the invasion. Even the Iraqi exile groomed by Washington as a possible Hussein successor, Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress, implied that the U.S.-led forces are culpable for failing to maintain order.

"I don't hold the American forces responsible for the Hakim assassination. But I hold the coalition forces responsible for security in Iraq," Chalabi told Al Jazeera television.

U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III, who left Iraq this week for vacation and consultations in Washington, acted quickly to express U.S. sympathies and denounce "the enemies of the new Iraq" for the attack.

"Again, they have killed innocent Iraqis. Again, they have violated one of Islam's most sacred places. Again, by their heinous action, they have shown the evil face of terrorism," Bremer said in a statement.

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