KARBALA, Iraq, April 23 -- At the close of commemorations that brought hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims to this holy city in a show of resurgent power, an influential Shiite leader today denounced the U.S. occupation as unacceptable and urged U.S. officials to turn over administration of Iraq to "a national and independent government."
The statement by Abdul Aziz Hakim, one of a variety of clergy vying for power among Shiites in Iraq, was another sign of growing unease among Iraq's 60 percent Shiite majority over U.S. intentions. Expressions of hostility from Iraqi Shiites, which became more pronounced in Karbala today, have led some U.S. officials to voice worry that the Islamic government in neighboring Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, may be seeking to influence attitudes in Iraq's unsettled postwar landscape.
"The American presence is unacceptable and there's no justification for it staying in Iraq," said Hakim, the deputy leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and a brother of its Tehran-based leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim.
Jay M. Garner, the retired lieutenant general assigned by the Pentagon to oversee Iraq's reconstruction, "is not needed here," Hakim said at a news conference in a converted hotel for pilgrims. "Iraqis have the ability to administer and run their own country."
Today marked the end of the traditional 40-day mourning period that follows the anniversary of the death of imam Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson who was killed in a battle in Karbala in 680. The rituals here commemorating his death -- an unrivaled symbol of suffering and sacrifice for Shiite Muslims -- were banned or discouraged under the government of Saddam Hussein.
As they had Tuesday, tens of thousands marched today under green, black and red banners, beating their chests as they surged into a shrine of gold-leafed domes and minarets. Some carried portraits of the head of imam Hussein, who was decapitated after he fell in battle. Others carried flags that bore his name in Arabic, blood falling from the letters in a symbol of his martyrdom.
In a handful of marches, Shiites cut their heads with the flat edge of swords, blood pouring down their faces. In a spectacle not seen in three decades, others swung heavy chains, which caught the glint of a blazing sun before crashing down on their backs. "The people are stronger than tyrants," one of their banners read.
Throughout the day, hundreds joined marches with pronounced political overtones. In chants and banners, they denounced the United States, Israel and Iraqi opposition leaders considered too close to Washington. As with Shiite movements in revolutionary Iran in the 1970s and Lebanon in the 1980s, they tapped religious symbolism to frame an overtly political message.
"No to imperialism, no to Israel, no to America, no to Saddam," one slogan went. "Yes to Islam," another said.
"We want them out," said Ali Abdel-Hussein, 23. "We know America, we know how it deals with the rest of the world."
With few exceptions, the Shiite clergy have appealed to their followers to unify their ranks, aware of the power they can wield as representatives of the majority. In their statements, they have almost ritually deferred to the Hawza, the centuries-old seminary in the city of Najaf that acts as the supreme religious authority for Shiites in Iraq.
But the streets of Karbala today provided a window on rivalries that have emerged within the clergy and between the leadership inside Iraq and those returning from exile in Iran and other countries. Muqtada Sadr, the scion of a prominent clerical family whose father and two brothers were assassinated by the government in 1999, said in an interview last week that exiled Shiite groups have every right to return to Iraq, but dismissed their claim to a leading role in the postwar government.
His men have fanned out in cities across southern Iraq, organizing security and helping administer civil services. In Karbala, they posed a formidable presence with marches commemorating the death of his father, who is portrayed as a martyr.
"The people who deserve to rule are the ones who stayed here," he said.
Hakim, whose brother remains in Iran, discounted the divisions. In his news conference today, he said the success of the clergy in organizing the commemorations in Karbala demonstrated their ability to administer other cities in Iraq. As for any future government, he said it was up to the Iraqi people to decide in free elections.
He said some members of the group's militia -- the Badr Brigades -- have returned to Iraq from Iran, although the fighters have orders not to interfere with U.S. forces. "The only reason for their presence is to stand by the Iraqi people," he said.
U.S. officials have acknowledged being caught off guard by the authority the Shiite clergy have commanded in Iraq. While U.S. officials have warned Iran not to interfere, however, they have stopped short of describing the clergy as a threat.
"I think the bulk of the Shia, the majority of the Shia, are very glad they are where they are right now," Garner said during a visit to northern Iraq. "Two weeks ago they wouldn't have been able to demonstrate."
Garner was on the third day of a four-day tour of the country. He plans to visit the country's largely Shiite southern provinces with his British counterpart, Tim Cross, at the end of next week or the beginning of the following week.
"The majority of people realize we are only going to stay here long enough to start a democratic government for them. We're only going to stay here long enough to get their economy going, to get their oil flowing back to the people and the revenue back to the people," Garner said. He predicted that "in a very short order you'll see a change in the attitudes."
There were mixed signs about the reconstruction Garner seeks to promote.
A U.S.-organized opposition meeting, the second since the war, was pushed back from Saturday to Monday to avoid what officials said was bad weather expected in Baghdad this weekend. But electricity was restored in about a fifth of the capital, and four wells in the sprawling oil field of South Rumaila near Basra began pumping again for the first time since Iraq cut production in mid-March ahead of the U.S. invasion.
Even as those efforts got underway, the fate of the former government remained unknown. British Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon, visiting southern Iraq, said he believes Hussein is alive and on the run within Iraq.
The Iraqi National Congress, an opposition group composed mostly of exiles and backed by the Pentagon, said it received reports that Hussein held a meeting with loyalists at a farm north of Baghdad five days ago. Zaab Sethna, an adviser to INC leader Ahmed Chalabi, said the group received the intelligence 15 hours after the meeting. They passed it on to two U.S. military liaison officers at the group's compound in Baghdad, but it was too late to take action, Sethna said.
The group claims that prominent members of Hussein's Baath Party have retreated to an area north of Baghdad between the cities of Ramadi and Baqubah, where there is almost no visible U.S. military presence. Posters of Hussein continue to be put up in the area, and the former president held his meeting near there, Sethna said.
"This is the last stronghold," Sethna said in an interview at the Baghdad Hunting Club, where the INC installed itself after arriving last week. "They are attempting to regroup and reconstitute themselves as a secret organization to plan attacks on public order."
U.S. forces took into custody four officials of the fallen Baath government, U.S. officials announced in Washington. They included Muzahim Saab Hassan Tikriti, who headed the Iraqi air defense command and was No. 10 on a list of 55 officials wanted by the United States, and Gen. Zuhayr Talib Abdul Sattar Naqib, former head of military intelligence.
Correspondent Peter Finn and staff writer Monte Reel in Baghdad contributed to this report.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company