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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Car Bombing Kills Over 100 in Iraq

Aired August 29, 2003 - 20:18   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: In Najaf, Iraq, the search goes on tonight for more bodies in the rubble of a bombed-out mosque. One of Iraq's top Shiite clerics was among more than 100 people who were killed when a car bomb exploded outside the Imam Ali mosque at the close of Friday prayers. Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim had returned to Najaf in May from a 23-year exile in Iran.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but we have some audio of the blast from National Public Radio's Ivan Watson.

Joining us with insights on these latest developments is Mideast expert Judith Yaphe of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University.

Good evening. Nice to see you. Thanks for joining us.

JUDITH YAPHE, INSTITUTE FOR NATIONAL STRATEGIC STUDIES: My pleasure, Soledad. It's good to be here.

O'BRIEN: Well, thank you.

The list of possible suspects for perpetrators of this blast, it is not a short list. But who do you think is at the very top?

YAPHE: Well, I think there are two primary suspects.

One would come from within the Shia extremist community, if you will. And that would be led by Moxada Sadar (ph), who is from Baghdad, another prominent family. He was almost certainly responsible for the murder of another prominent cleric right after the war ended in April, also in Najaf in the Imam Ali mosque a leading moderate, who was working, or willing to work, with the United States. He was also against this Hakim.

And their opposition to each other had gone back a long time, to the years in exile. But Hakim had just returned this spring, after many years in exile in Iran. He was one of the most prominent leaders of the Shia activist movement.

O'BRIEN: Well, earlier this morning, Ahmad Chalabi, who is the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, had this to say about who he thought caused the blast: "There are no other possible suspects, no one. No Muslim would attack the mosque of Najaf on a Friday, killing hundreds of worshipers. It is only Saddam and his people who can do that, no one else. All other theories are speculation."

What do you make of that? YAPHE: Speculation. I don't think it's quite right.

If there were Saddam Hussein adherents or people who had worked for Saddam's regime active in this, they might have been working for Sadar. We know that Sadar had hired street thugs from Baghdad to go down to Najaf and protest.

But the other possibility, besides this being within the Shia themselves, are Sunni extremists who might want to set the Shia at war with each other. After all, here is a minority. What they would want to do is to have the majority be at odds. It creates instability, chaos, and makes the minority stronger. So there is a possibility that Sunni extremists, maybe in league with other elements in Iraq, Saddam loyalists who are now loyal to nobody, could have been involved that way as well. We really don't know.

O'BRIEN: The U.S. will obviously not get the blame for the literal attack. But they will get the blame for the lack of overall security.

How far do you think this attack goes in undermining the relatively decent relationship that the U.S. has with the Shia population?

YAPHE: It'll undermine it, but no more than it was maybe undermined already.

We will be blamed, as we have been already, by some for not providing sufficient security. But the Shia are being very careful in that, because the United States has shown quite a lot of care in not being a presence, or putting a presence around the mosques. Out of respect for the religious community, the nature of the shrines and worshipping, we have not gone near or in those mosques.

We learned to our dismay that that contributed to the murder in April, where a cleric was hacked to death. Did it contribute today? If we had had an intrusive presence there, that would have also opened us to criticism. That's a no-win situation. But I don't think this was targeted specifically against the United States. That's a byproduct.

O'BRIEN: Judith Yaphe, thanks for joining us this evening. It's nice to see you.

YAPHE: You're welcome. Nice to see you.

O'BRIEN: Thanks.

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