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Iraqi Shiite Cleric Is Buried; Followers Lack a Successor

September 03, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

NAJAF, Iraq — In a land crowded with extremist voices, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim believed that the time had come for compromise.

The Shiite cleric spoke of unity among Muslims and cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. A scholar, politician and onetime exiled guerrilla leader, his credentials -- if not always his views -- made him one of the more powerful figures in the country. When he was buried here Tuesday, millions of his Shiite followers contemplated how such a man can be replaced at so dangerous a time.

The car bomb that killed Hakim and more than 100 others Friday eliminated a prominent Islamic voice that urged Iraqis to move away from fanaticism. It left the country's U.S.-led administration without a vital ally and Shiite Muslims -- 60% of the population -- without a leader who was as comfortable preaching in the mosque as he was directing his political party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

"Right now we have no one who can take Hakim's place," said Hussein Khalidi, a hotel owner who watched as hundreds of thousands of mourners followed the ayatollah's coffin to the gold-domed Imam Ali Mosque, still pocked with shrapnel scars from last week's blast.

"He navigated so well between religion and politics," Khalidi said. "But he had right-wing extremist voices against him, and now the Shiites will have to look out not only for attacks from [Saddam] Hussein's Baath Party but also from radicals."

It is a perilous landscape. The Shiites were persecuted and oppressed by the Sunni-dominated Baath Party for more than 30 years. Hakim was calling for Shiites and Sunnis to move away from past differences, but with him gone, many are worried that extremists in both camps will instigate bloodshed and splinter the country.

Others fear that the Shiite-dominated government in Iran will attempt to influence Iraqi Shiites to end cooperation with the West and drift toward religious conservatism.

"The Shiites in Iraq are targets of Baath elements, foreign powers and the Wahhabi radicals of the Sunnis," said Maan Saeed Taraihi, an official in Hakim's political party. "We expect we may have more martyrs.

"This will not weaken our efforts," Taraihi added. "There's a saying that 'when you hit a nail, it gets deeper and takes stronger hold.' Our unity will grow."

Shiite students marching in Hakim's funeral procession handed out fliers warning that those who killed Hakim want to spark "a terrible scheme aimed at religious and national powers." Iraqi police have arrested at least 19 people -- some allegedly tied to the Al Qaeda terrorist network -- in connection with the bombing. Most Shiites believe that the plot was orchestrated by Baath Party supporters who have gone underground since the U.S.-led invasion.

"Hakim called for national unity," said Jabbr Habib, a political analyst at Baghdad University. "Today, the political parties are aware that the enemies of the state want to separate the Sunnis and the Shiites and split the Muslims."

Hakim's support for the U.S.-led administration in Iraq earned him critics among some Shiite leaders, most notably Muqtader Sadr, who seeks to build an Islamic state. Their stance may polarize the Shiite community.

Hakim's death represented for many Shiites the failure of the American and allied troops to secure the country and protect its new leaders. During the three-day funeral march for the ayatollah, Shiite leaders grew increasingly critical of the U.S. forces with whom Hakim was willing to work.

"The occupation force is primarily responsible for the pure blood that was spilled in holy Najaf, the blood of Hakim and the faithful group that was present near the mosque," said Abdelaziz Hakim, the brother of the slain leader and a member of the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council selected by U.S. officials. "Iraq must not remain occupied, and the occupation must leave so that we can build Iraq as God wants us to do."

In a move symbolic of how U.S. forces are perceived by many Shiites, Hakim's coffin was buried in Najaf's 1920 Revolution Square, a cemetery dedicated to those killed early in the last century during a Shiite uprising against British occupiers. Last week's car bomb was so powerful that Hakim's body was not found and the coffin contained only his pen, watch, wedding ring and, according to some reports, one of his hands.

The cortege rolled slowly into Najaf, one of the holiest of Iraqi Shiite cities, amid flags and banners and bodyguards holding up Kalashnikovs. Iraqi police frisked mourners in the square near the Imam Ali Mosque. Several men carrying hand grenades were seized and loaded onto a police bus. As the truck carrying the coffin arrived, young men threw their fists in the air and, weeping, tossed garments toward the casket to be blessed.

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