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Iraqis Mourn for a Cleric and Lost Stability

Some of the 300,000 in a Shiite leader's funeral march want revenge. Others just want a job.

September 01, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — It started after Sunday's first light, the sound of thousands beating their chests.

Like a dull drum it thudded down Bab Al-Murad Street, rolling past vendors cooking eggs and children eating sesame buns, rolling past sweating men waving guns and women wailing, rolling through the heat and the rage and beneath a sky of sparrows circling the golden dome of a mosque. Some called for revenge; others wished for the peace that has so long eluded this incendiary nation.

About 300,000 mourners marched in the funeral procession of Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, one of Iraq's most influential Shiite clerics, killed with about 100 other people Friday when a car bomb exploded in Najaf. The blast was so powerful that the coffin in Sunday's ceremony contained no body. A watch, a wedding band and a hand were all investigators could find of Hakim. Draped in a green and black cloth and flecked with roses, the coffin inched through the crowd on a flatbed truck filled with holy men and bodyguards.

"Revenge! Revenge! Revenge!" shouted a man through a megaphone.

"He was assassinated by the hands of the traitors!" yelled another, referring to the belief of many Shiites that Hakim, a voice of moderation who reluctantly cooperated with the U.S.-led coalition, was killed by loyalists of Saddam Hussein.

But for many in the procession, the murder of Hakim was another tragedy in a country seething with violence coalition forces are unable to control. Many didn't want retribution. They sought food, jobs and stability. They wanted milk and soap. Their anger was split between the razor wire and tanks of coalition forces and the mercurial danger of terrorists. Four of the 19 suspects arrested by Iraqi forces are believed to have ties to Al Qaeda. On streets filled with mourners, there was frequent worry of new deaths.

What would blow up next?


"Look," said Ahmed Jasim, pointing to a cart of sesame buns along the procession route near the Musa Al-Kadhim mosque in the Kadhimiya neighborhood. "This may have a bomb in it. We all live in fear. I don't want revenge. I want peace. Since the coalition forces entered Iraq, what have they done?"

"We've suffered enough," said Jasim's friend, Luqman Nima.

Standing along the procession route, Sabah Ali, a headmistress at a girls school, said she worries how her students can be safe in a lawless nation.

"Before the war, the girls would come and go from school on their own," Ali said. "But now their parents or their brothers escort them to school and wait to pick them up after classes. Nothing seems secure."

The mourners marched away from the golden-domed mosque and down Al-Zahraa Street. Banners and flags lifted in a light breeze. Women in black abayas chanted. Koran passages crackled from loudspeakers. Hakim, said the clerics, was now a martyr in paradise. Mourners sipped water from hoses held by children on the curbside; the boys selling ice were busy. The crowd walked nearly two miles toward the Bratha Mosque, a revered site where Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, drank from a well centuries ago.

Iraqi police patrols -- following a pattern in recent days -- were out in force, blocking roads and walking with the procession. U.S. helicopters circled above.

"The occupation forces which managed to occupy the country by force is the party that is responsible for keeping security and peace in Iraq and also for all that is happening everywhere each day," said Abdelaziz Hakim, the brother of the slain leader and a member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

Muayad Kadhum held the hand of his son and wept as the coffin passed.

"This is a calamity," said the retired Iraqi soldier. "We will only know security when Saddam is really gone."

Two young men hurried past with Kalashnikovs, looking angry.

Iraq's Shiites constitute about 60% of the population, but they were oppressed by Hussein's Sunni-dominated Baath Party. The assassination of Hakim, a spiritual leader who founded a Shiite militia known as the Badr Brigade, threatens to inflame tensions between Shiites and Sunnis at a time when coalition forces are battling terrorist strikes, which also include those recently at the Jordanian Embassy and a U.N. compound. The coalition has offered $200,000 in emergency aid to families of those killed in the Najaf attack.

"The coalition forces aren't giving us safety," said Haji Fadhil Timimi. " ... And now our clerics are the targets of terrorists. This makes things worse. The coalition forces have not protected our borders and Iraq has become a theater where terrorists and those loyal to Saddam can do what they want."

"This tragedy would not have happened if Iraqis had control of their own security," Mahmud Kadhum said.

In Najaf, a Marine spokesman said Sunday that transfer of authority in the area to an international force led by Poland was on hold in the wake of the bombing. The move had been planned for this week.

In Baghdad, many mourners filed into buses to follow Hakim's coffin in a procession that went to Karbala on Sunday afternoon and will end Tuesday in Najaf, where Hakim's remains will be buried in the most holy of Iraqi Shiite cities. Concerned about more unrest, the Iraqi Governing Council has asked Iran to close part of its border to prevent thousands of Iranian Shiites from attending the funeral.


Times staff writer Carol J. Williams contributed to this report.

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