Bombing a Major Setback for U.S.
Published on Saturday, August 30, 2003 by the Toronto Star
Bombing a Major Setback for U.S.
Lack of stability changes rules for reconstruction effort
Analyst warns that cleric's slaying raises potential for civil war
by Tim Harper

The Bush administration's occupation of Iraq is at a crossroads after yesterday's car bombing dealt Washington its biggest setback since the March invasion.

The car bomb, which killed Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and scores of others during Friday prayers at a mosque in Najaf, raised the potential of civil war in the country, some analysts here said yesterday.

People run in panic inside the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines in the central city of Najaf, 180 km south of Baghdad. A car bomb killed at least 82 people, including Iraq's top Shiite political leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, and wounded 229 others outside one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines in Najaf, medical sources told AFP, adding that 100 of the wounded are listed in serious condition. (AFP/Sabah Arar)
At very least, they said, it makes the quest for stability even more elusive and appears to be changing the rules for reconstruction efforts because it is the most dramatic illustration yet that the U.S. cannot guarantee security in the country.

It also led to more calls for a boost in the number of troops in Iraq, with some voices insisting they be American troops with others calling for a United Nations resolution and a dilution of American power in Iraq in return for an influx of international soldiers.

"It's a bit early to say civil war is the path, but it is one potential path,'' said Peter Singer of the Washington-based Brookings Institution.

"It's a tense time. But first we have to find out who did this and then gauge the response.''

Gary Schmitt, of the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century, said the bombing is yet another indication of the lack of security in Iraq because of a shortage of troops.

"It's clearly a setback. You can't have that many people killed, including a Shiite leader who was co-operating with the Americans, and call it anything else,'' Schmitt said.

"We have to be more aggressive against the bad guys who are still in the country.''

Al-Hakim had co-operated with the U.S. occupiers after returning to Iraq after 23 years in exile in Iran.

President George W. Bush, who is on his summer break at his Texas ranch at Crawford, remained silent on the bombing. White House deputy press secretary Claire Buchan said only that Bush remained committed to defeating terrorism and ensuring a better quality of life for Iraqis.

Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian official in Iraq, denounced the bombing, saying it demonstrated that "the enemies of the new Iraq will stop at nothing.

"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 issued from Washington.

Bush returns to Washington for a new congressional season Tuesday.

He already faced a hard sell to the American public as the post-Labour Day election race gets under way in earnest, but that sell job just got tougher.

The American death toll now stands at 282 and costs of the occupation continued to escalate with Bremer saying additional costs to reconstruct the country could run into the tens of billions, over and above the $1 billion per week it is already costing.

As well, the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, suggested Washington may have to go back to the United Nations to try to get a new resolution authorizing international help for the 146,000 Americans in Iraq.

In August alone, a car bombing at the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad killed 17 and another bombing at the United Nations headquarters killed 23.

Although some were quick to say yesterday's assassination of al-Hakim was the work of Sunnis loyal to Saddam Hussein, others said they believed it was part of an interfactional fight in the Shiite community, who account for 60 per cent of the country's population of about 25 million.

"Either way, it is bad news for the Americans because they are destined to lose any support they may have had in the Shiite sector,'' Singer said.

Schmitt said people on the ground are now more likely to see the reconstruction of Iraq in a new light, where there are "new rules and new opportunities ... where everything is part of a fight.

"That is going to be a big problem.''

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