Najaf Mosque Blast Suspects Arrested
August 31, 2003
Mosque Blast Suspects Arrested
At least four are thought to have ties to Al Qaeda, U.S. officials say. Many
victims of the attack in Iraq are buried amid anger and calls for calm.
By Patrick J. McDonnell
Times Staff Writer
NAJAF, Iraq - Amid surging, grief-enraged crowds, police in this holy city
arrested several suspects Saturday in the car-bomb attack that killed a
leading Shiite cleric and about 100 other people.
Officials with the U.S.-led occupation authority said in Baghdad that at
least four suspects were believed to have ties to the Al Qaeda terrorist
network. The officials declined to offer details.
If true, the assertion would establish a critical link between the widely
reported presence in Iraq of foreign subversives and a specific act of
Friday's mosque bombing during midday prayers was the third large-scale
attack on a civilian, nominally pro-Western target in 22 days - after those
at the Jordanian Embassy and the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad -
and threatened to severely undermine U.S. efforts to stabilize postwar Iraq.
In Najaf, tens of thousands of people thronged the streets leading to the
gold-domed Imam Ali Mosque, site of Friday's devastating blast and one of
Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, where the mourners rhythmically beat their
chests. Others held aloft the wooden coffins of dozens of victims, which
were taken away for burial. Men sobbed openly.
According to Islamic tradition, the dead are to be buried quickly, but the
funeral for Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim was delayed because of difficulty
in recovering his remains.
Some of Hakim's followers were convinced that he was still alive because it
was so difficult to identify his remains.
His aides, however, said they found several of his rings and papers
belonging to him amid the debris.
A funeral is scheduled to begin today, starting with a procession from
Baghdad. He will be buried Tuesday in Najaf, about 85 miles south of the
Hakim, 64, who returned from decades in exile just three months ago, was a
relative moderate with a loyal following. He disliked the U.S.-led
occupation of Iraq but was willing to cooperate with the coalition out of
Despite immediate fears that his slaying would unleash a bloody campaign of
retaliation, most communities in Iraq remained relatively quiet.
There were large demonstrations in Baghdad and elsewhere, which vociferously
blamed U.S. authorities for failing to restore law and order. They ended
"The Americans will not protect us, yet they do not allow us to protect
ourselves as we are capable of," said Sheik Jabbar Ajeel Khuzaie as he
sipped tea in a hotel lobby in Najaf with other tribal leaders.
"This situation only seems to be getting worse. If the Americans cannot
provide us with security, we must do it ourselves."
Political and religious leaders issued pleas for calm and urged citizens of
all faiths to resist the bombers' attempts to turn Iraqis against one
"We call upon the Iraqi people to be unified and integrated, so as to stand
in the face of sedition, sectarianism and racism," said the Islamic Dawa
Party, a conservative Shiite group.
There was confusion Saturday night over the arrests. Reports put the figure
anywhere from three to nearly 20.
In the highly charged atmosphere after the blast, any and all outsiders were
viewed with hostility. Journalists were repeatedly attacked and threatened.
Some of the detained may simply have been unwelcome, with no connection at
all to the bombing, said Maj. Rick Hall of the Marines, who is assisting the
Iraqi police in the investigation.
Charles Heatly, a spokesman for the occupation authority in Baghdad,
confirmed the detention of four men portrayed as having connections to Al
News agencies quoted Najaf officials as saying that the team consisted of
two Saudi nationals and two former Iraqi paramilitary fighters who confessed
to the bombing and revealed plans for additional assassinations, sabotage
and other violence.
Arabic television showed pictures of two men being taken into custody and
ushered into waiting police vehicles. One slightly balding man had a short
beard and wore Western clothing; the second was dressed in a white robe and
kaffiyeh typical of Persian Gulf Arabs.
Heatly would not offer details about the suspects' detention or the
"It's a little early to comment," he said. "We don't feel we have the full
The bomb that claimed so many lives was packed in either a BMW or a Toyota
Land Cruiser that had been parked overnight outside the southern portico of
the mosque, Hall said.
That vantage point gave anyone in the vehicle a view of the exit most often
used by Hakim, who led Friday prayers minutes before he was killed.
A police officer reported seeing the vehicle parked at that location but
apparently did not investigate.
The fact that the vehicle was left overnight led investigators to conclude
that the bombing was not a suicide mission but instead done by remote
"If you're going to stage a vehicle in an advantageous setup, why would a
guy detonate it from inside if he could do it from a distance?" Hall said.
The plot involved precise planning and an enormous payload, which broke many
of the shrine's blue mosaic tiles and demolished a row of shops across the
street. It was not yet clear what kind of explosive material was used.
Whoever did it might have staked out Hakim from a nearby hotel, Hall said.
No organization has claimed responsibility for the bombing. There have been
violent rivalries within the Shiite community, whose members make up the
majority in Iraq.
Most Iraqis blamed former officers and agents from the regime of deposed
President Saddam Hussein, who are thought to be eager to sow discontent and
make the new Iraq ungovernable for the Americans and their supporters.
Just about everybody also held U.S. forces responsible for failing to
Signs of political blowback already were appearing. Seyyid Mohammed Bahr
Uloom, a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council from Najaf,
announced that he was suspending his membership in protest. News reports
quoted him as urging that the occupation authority turn security matters
back to Iraqis so they could protect their religious shrines.
The U.S.-led occupation administration "roundly rejects" the accusation that
it has failed to provide security, Heatly said.
U.S. officials have blamed both Hussein loyalists and Muslim extremist
groups associated with Al Qaeda for the increasing number of attacks in Iraq
on U.S. and allied troops, and on civilian targets.
Al Qaeda members are Sunni Muslims, like the minority faction that had ruled
Iraq. Many Sunnis are now among the most resentful toward the U.S. invasion.
Al Qaeda's views have been heavily influenced by Wahhabism, a puritanical
form of the religion that has frequently been at odds with Shiite Islam.
In Iraq, Wahhabis live primarily in the same Hussein stronghold north and
west of Baghdad that has been the site of most of the deadly ambushes on
U.S. troops. In interviews with The Times in recent weeks, Iraqis familiar
with the anti-U.S. resistance noted a growing alliance between Wahhabis and
former Hussein loyalists.
Rumors that Wahhabis were responsible for the bombing swept through the
teeming streets of Najaf throughout the day.
Hall, the Marine major, said two of the people in custody had been turned
over to the Marines by angry residents who accosted them at a restaurant.
Both were from the southern city of Basra, and their beards and way of
speaking made people suspect that they were Wahhabis, he said.
"It almost seemed like these guys were in the wrong place at the wrong
time," Hall said, although he added there were "inconsistencies" in their
stories. A third man was arrested at an Internet cafe here, the cafe owner
A new force of 400 Iraqi police is scheduled to begin patrolling the area
around the shrine as early as Tuesday, Hall said, while Marines will patrol
an outer perimeter. He said the Marines had offered to make such patrols
earlier but had been turned down by Najaf's religious leadership, sensitive
to a U.S. military presence so close to the revered site.
"They did not want us in that area," Hall said. "They didn't have too much
trust in us."
There was also confusion over the rising death toll, with hospitals on
Saturday reporting 125 dead before starting to scale back the numbers
because of double-counting of bodies.
At the Najaf Teaching Hospital, which contains the city's only morgue, the
many cadavers and body parts overwhelmed the facility's capacity. Corpses
were left piled on the floor overnight.
The Ministry of Health on Saturday provided a refrigerated truck that can
hold 200 bodies, easing the burden, said Dr. Safaa Amredi, the hospital
The bombing "was done by people who don't want us to live peaceful, stable
lives in our country," said Majid Mohammed Jawad, a 40-year-old cigarette
salesman who spoke from his hospital bed. Bandages covered his right ear and
knee, which had been cut by shrapnel.
He said he survived only because the force of the blast sent him flying
under a metal garbage container, which absorbed most of the shrapnel when
the bomb exploded.
"I am alive because of that garbage can," Jawad said.
Like others, Amredi said he feared spiraling violence among Shiites.
On Saturday evening, he said, he was informed that someone opened fire at
the home of Muqtader Sadr, a young cleric whose group is a rival to the
slain religious leader. Sadr, the son of a revered cleric assassinated by
the Hussein regime, is stridently opposed to the U.S.-led occupation and has
a strong following among Shiites in Baghdad.
The report of the attack could not be independently confirmed.
There were no injuries in the shooting, Amredi said, but he voiced fears
that it could signal the onset of factional attacks among Shiite groups.
"We do not need more killing now," he said.
Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson and Carol J. Williams in Baghdad
contributed to this report.