NAJAF, Iraq — U.S.-led occupation forces in this holy city have released four of seven suspects arrested in the car bombing here last month that killed more than 100 people, and they have yet to find any direct evidence linking the blast to Al Qaeda or other foreign terrorist groups, officials said Monday.
The four were released because of a lack of proof against them, said Lt. Col. Chris Woodbridge, who heads the Marine battalion occupying Najaf. They were turned over to Iraqi police, Woodbridge said, but U.S. authorities are convinced they were not involved in the attack.
The three suspects still held by U.S. forces remain in custody while authorities check inconsistencies in their statements, but they too may eventually be cleared, Woodbridge said. All seven detainees appear to be Iraqis, despite initial reports that several foreigners were detained.
"I'm not claiming by any stretch of the imagination that we've got the bombers," said Woodbridge, who commands the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment, based in Twentynine Palms.
Within a day of the Aug. 29 bombing in Najaf, U.S. authorities in Baghdad told reporters that at least four of the suspected plotters were believed to have ties with the Al Qaeda terrorist network. The bombing killed a leading Shiite Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim.
The Bush administration has said that foreign terrorists have entered Iraq to cause havoc. President Bush declared in a speech to the nation Sunday that Iraq had become the "central front" in the U.S.-declared war on terrorism.
Early reports after the bombing said that as many as 19 suspects had been detained by Iraqi police, but U.S. officials now say that number appears to be inflated. At one point, Najaf police said two Saudis had been arrested. Another suspect was described as a Jordanian but turned out to be an Iraqi with business dealings in the neighboring Arab nation, Woodbridge said.
Other reports circulating in Najaf pointed the finger at practitioners of the Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam, a fundamentalist faction now widely identified with Osama bin Laden.
"Within one hour of the bombing, we heard it was the Iranians, it was the Wahhabis, it was Al Qaeda," Woodbridge said. "It was Saddam -- we had three sightings of Saddam. Saddam in a white car, a black truck."
Authorities now say those assertions linking the bombing to Al Qaeda or foreigners appear to have been premature.
"This bombing in Najaf could have been done by any number of groups, or even by people who just want to cause trouble and don't want stability in Iraq," Thomas Fuentes, chief FBI investigator in Baghdad, said Monday.
The Najaf bombing has fed a sense of insecurity among Shiites. Since the attack, armed militiamen associated with rival Shiite groups have taken to the streets to fill a perceived void.
On Monday, the Marines said they had ordered the groups off the streets by Friday, setting up a possible confrontation between U.S. forces and the gunmen.
The FBI has been investigating the Najaf attack and two Baghdad bombings -- at the United Nations compound on Aug. 19 and at the Jordanian Embassy on Aug. 7. But investigators have been unable to link the three attacks, Fuentes said.
Both the U.N. and Najaf bombings involved Soviet-era military ordnance -- artillery shells and grenades -- that was once part of the Iraqi army inventory but now is widely available in Iraq. And the FBI official noted that the Najaf and U.N. bombings had many differences: distinct wiring was used; the U.N. bomb was much larger; and the U.N. bombing is believed to have been a suicide attack, whereas the Najaf bomb is thought to have been set off by remote control.
In Najaf, the FBI has examined evidence gathered at the scene and interrogated suspects in U.S. custody, Woodbridge said. However, officials say the blast scene was largely contaminated after the bombing, as thousands of stunned residents rushed to the site, many climbing over wrecked vehicles and standing in the bomb crater. There was no forensic isolation of the scene, as is common in U.S. crimes.
In fact, Fuentes said, investigators gathered considerable evidence from shopkeepers and others who guarded pieces of shrapnel from the blast.
Najaf is the spiritual capital of Iraq's Shiite Muslims, who make up about two-thirds of the country's population. Long repressed by the regime of Saddam Hussein, most Shiites initially welcomed U.S. troops as liberators. But many now complain about a lack of services and security.
Hakim, who returned to Iraq after more than two decades in exile in Iran, was considered a moderate inclined to work with U.S. forces. Speculation about who may have sought to kill him includes Hussein loyalists or international terrorists trying to create havoc in Iraq, rival Shiite groups jealous of Hakim's standing, and Iranians upset at his moderate stance toward the United States. But authorities stress that all these theories remain speculative.