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Bombing raises fears of sectarian violence

Many blame Najaf attack on minority Sunni factions

People search the rubble for bodies early Saturday.
People search the rubble for bodies early Saturday.

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Scenes from the bombing at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf.
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CNN's Rym Brahimi on the car-bomb explosion that rocked Najaf.
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A car bomb triggered a massive explosion at one of Iraq's most sacred mosques in Najaf.
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• Contains tomb of Ali, spiritual founder of Shiite Islam.

• Holy Shrine of Ali, one of the most revered sites in Shiite world.

• Ali is honored as cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad; his assassination and martyrdom key to Shiite worship.

• Najaf is center of science, theology and literature, a pilgrimage destination and starting point of pilgrimage to Mecca.

• City has been a center of Shiite Muslims' resistance to Sunni Muslim rule in Baghdad.

• Worldwide, Shiites aspire to be buried in Najaf, which has one of the largest cemeteries in the world, the City of the Dead.

• In past and most recent Iraqi conflicts, Shiites flock to Najaf to bury loved ones.

• Located in central Iraq, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, on west ridge of Euphrates River.

NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- Even before the last bodies were pulled from the wreckage of the bombing of the Imam Ali mosque, many officials in Iraq were pointing fingers at Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party followers or rival Shiite factions for the attack.

Throngs of Shiite Muslims On Saturday crowded the square outside the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq. An influential Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, was among the more than 120 people killed in Friday's massive car bomb at the holy site.

The blast on the Muslim holy day at one of the most revered sites for Shiites sent shock waves throughout the Shiite Muslim world. (Full story)

"It would be like a major bomb going off outside of St. Peter's [Basilica] in Rome, or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, for Christians," Brookings Institution scholar Ken Pollack said.

A U.S. intelligence official said he would "not rule anybody out" as a suspect in the attack, including other Shiite leaders, Baath Party loyalists and Sunni Muslims, though he said it is "much too early" to have a working hypothesis.

From London, England, Hamid al-Bayati, an official of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said the responsible party was likely Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, and Baath loyalists.

"I don't think any Shiite group would have the intention of killing religious scholars or attacking a religious shrine like the Imam Ali Mosque," he said.

In exile for 23 years in Iran, al-Hakim supported a similar Islamic theocracy for Iraq. As a result, he was a longtime foe of Saddam's regime, which was dominated by Sunni Muslims, who are a minority in Iraq.

Ahmed Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress and a member of the U.S.-backed Iraq Governing Council, also blamed Saddam.

He said the attack on the mosque -- as worshipers left after noon prayers -- was an appalling act, "a big event" for Shiites, Iraqis and Muslims everywhere.

Pollack said that if the bombing and similar attacks are found to be the work of followers of Saddam, it could touch off a severe round of violence between the majority Shiites -- who were persecuted under Saddam's regime -- and Sunnis. (On the Scene: Ken Pollack)

Sectarian violence between the two Muslim sects in Iraq could plunge the country "into chaos and civil war," agreed Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international affairs and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York.

Witnesses in Baghdad said about 300 members of the Badr Corps -- the armed wing of the SCIRI -- left Baghdad wearing military-style uniforms and armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades, saying they were going to Najaf.

The mosque bombing comes after a truck bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on August 19 that killed 23 people and a car bombing at the Jordanian Embassy on August 7 that killed at least 10.

Each bomb has been more powerful than the previous, and all appear to be aimed at destabilizing Iraq.

Chalabi said the U.S.-backed coalition has a responsibility to safeguard the Iraqi people.

"The United States and the coalition have taken upon themselves the responsibility for security in all parts of Iraq," he said. "It is up to them to provide the security."

Pollack said it was doubtful that Shiites would blame the United States directly for the attack, but echoed Chalabi's contention that the Shiites would blame the U.S.-backed coalition "simply for not doing a better job at security.

But there could be a long list of those who would gain from al-Hakim's death.

"You could say, of course, members of the former regime, remnants of the [Saddam] Fedayeen [militia] --people like that," said Hassan Fatah, editor of Iraq Today. "There's also been a lot of internal fighting among the groups themselves -- the Shiite groups."

Al-Hakim was engaged in a generational power struggle with a less-traditional Shiite faction led by Sheik Muqtada Al Sadr. Sadr has criticized the U.S. occupation of Iraq and refused to join the coalition-backed governing council.

Other prominent Shiite clerics have been attacked since the fall of Baghdad.

One Shiite leader was killed at the mosque in April. Last week, about a half-mile from the mosque, a bomb exploded at the house of an uncle of the ayatollah. (Full story)

Al-Hakim did not support the war that ousted Saddam and was also a vocal critic of the U.S. presence in Iraq, saying in May that it was in the "best interests of everyone for the Americans to leave as quickly as possible."

However, the ayatollah -- who was marked for death by Saddam in the late 1990s -- had been somewhat cooperative with the coalition. His brother, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, is a member of the governing council. (Full story)

If sectarian violence breaks out, U.S. forces could find themselves between Shiite groups fighting one another -- with Saddam's Sunni factions taking potshots at everyone.

"If the Shiite population turns against the United States and you see a large-scale resistance by the Shiites against the United States, this reconstruction effort is doomed," Pollack said.

Still, Pollack said, the vast majority of Iraqi Shiites support the U.S.-led reconstruction effort, at least for now.

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