The bomb attack on the holy city of Najaf in Iraq dealt a new blow to US hopes of bringing stability to the country as well as killing a key moderating influence on the Iraqi Shiite community, US experts said.
Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, a leading Shiite Muslim cleric, was among at least 82 people killed in the car bomb set off outside the Tomb of Ali, one of the Islamic world's most important shrines.
Iraqi men gather at the blast site, outside 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)
Coming barely 10 days after the truck bomb that killed 23 people at the UN offices in Baghdad, including the UN special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, US and British of stabilizing Iraq now look even more forlorn.
"Things are going rotten, we are seeing a degradation for which there appears to be no remedy," said Simon Serfaty, a specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"American military power seems to unable to keep up with events in a country where everything is out of control."
US forces have been kept away from the shrine to Imam Ali in Najaf in recent months because of its sensitive nature.
There have been virtually daily attacks on US forces since President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat in Iraq on May 1.
More troops have been killed since the end of the war than during the invasion and the US administration is fighting off mounting calls in Congress to reinforce the 140,000 US forces in Iraq.
The killing of the cleric in the attack also wiped out a key stabilizing influence in the country, which is predominantly Shiite and a vital link with Iran, where al-Hakim had lived in exile for 23 years until the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Mary-Jane Deeb, a Middle East specialist at the American University in Washington, said that Hakim "wanted to prevent a confrontation between Shiites and Americans, between Iranians and Americans, between Shiites and Sunnites."
Hakim "was a moderate in the sense that he wanted to keep things calm and take his time, even if his aim was to establish an Islamic republic," said Deeb.
Hakim, head of the Iran-backed Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was represented by one of his brothers on the US-named interim governing council.
Despite Hakim's links with Iran, the United States had considered his group a negotiating partner long before the fall of Saddam, in a sign to Shiites in Iraq and its Iranian sponsor.
Though no claim of responsibility was made, the attack came only three days after the Al-Arabiya satellite television channel broadcast a video of masked men threatening members of the interim governing council and those who support it.
The United States responded to the broadcast with fury.
Highlighting US fears that the message would be heard in Iraq, a State Department spokesman said it was "irresponsible in the extreme" to give a stage to the threats and plans of "these masked terrorists".
© 2003 AFP