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Cleric's Militia Seizes Hussein Loyalist In Raid

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  • Josh Pollack
    Los Angeles Times September 2, 2003 Cleric s Militia Seizes Hussein Loyalist In Raid Gunmen are followers of the ayatollah slain in mosque bombing. Tape
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 2, 2003
      Los Angeles Times
      September 2, 2003

      Cleric's Militia Seizes Hussein Loyalist In Raid

      Gunmen are followers of the ayatollah slain in mosque bombing. Tape believed to be from the deposed dictator says he was not behind the blast.

      By Jeffrey Fleishman, Times Staff Writer

      NAJAF, Iraq — A Saddam Hussein loyalist and his son were seized here Monday in a shootout with Shiite gunmen as this volatile city awaited the funeral of a popular cleric who was killed last week in a car bomb explosion that shook the nation's religious and political factions.

      The three-day funeral procession for Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim was creeping toward Najaf when about 15 members of the cleric's militia staged a predawn attack on the home of a Baath Party member, witnesses said. Many of Hakim's Shiite followers believe Hussein loyalists are responsible for the bombing that killed the imam and more than 100 others Friday.

      Karim Ghaith Daami and his son Amir were taken from a bullet-marked home by members of Hakim's former Badr Brigade, witnesses said. Their whereabouts are unknown. One Badr gunman was killed and two others wounded in the firefight that began at 3 a.m. and ended five hours later, neighbors said.

      After the shooting, the home was looted and scrawled with graffiti reading "House of the Infidel," then set ablaze.

      No independent verification of the battle was available from Iraqi police or U.S. occupation forces. The prospect that the Badr Brigade — which had disarmed after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq — is taking up weapons for revenge attacks against suspected Hussein supporters is another troubling dimension to the security problems facing the country.

      Meanwhile, a purported tape recording of Hussein was broadcast on Al Jazeera television Monday. In it, the deposed leader denied that he or his followers were responsible for the attack that killed Hakim.

      "Many of you may have heard the snakes hissing," he said, "the servants of the invaders, occupiers, infidels, and how they have managed to accuse the followers of Saddam Hussein of responsibility" for the killing "without any evidence."

      The voice on the recording, which Al Jazeera said seemed to be that of Hussein, said he was being accused as a way to divert attention from the real culprits. He did not speculate on who they might be.

      "Whatever mysterious thing has happened, the true answers can only be found through an honest investigation by a national government in the future," he said. "That can only happen once the invaders and occupiers are kicked out of Iraq, which will happen soon, God willing."

      Charles Heatly, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, which is the occupation administration, said he could not speak to the authenticity of the tape but noted that sightings and messages from the deposed dictator surface occasionally.

      "The fact is that Saddam Hussein is not in control of the country. Very few people remain loyal to him, and he has very little support in this country," Heatly said.

      In Washington, a CIA official said the agency is analyzing the tape, but so far has reached no conclusion about its authenticity.

      The gun battle in Najaf came as Hakim's funeral procession, which began in Baghdad on Sunday, moved closer to the marshy outskirts of this holy city. Thousands of Shiites rushed toward the yellow flatbed truck carrying the cleric's coffin. They waved flags and wept as the coffin rolled past farm fields and scores of villages on a 100-mile journey that is scheduled to end today at the Imam Ali Mosque — the shrine where Hakim was killed after leading Friday prayers.

      Crosscurrents of religious passion and seething anger swept through the trundling cortege. Some mourners called for revenge while bands of men — most of them security guards for clerics — roamed the roadsides with Kalashnikovs and pistols. A U.S. military official said the occupation authority is allowing extra bodyguards for the funeral. Those bodyguards mingled with U.S.-trained Iraqi police officers at checkpoints throughout the city and its suburbs.

      "People won't worry about the danger," said Abu Ahmed, a member of Hakim's Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. "People will come to mourn him and suffer for him."

      Tension widened in Najaf on Monday night as some of the estimated 1 million mourners began streaming through the streets. Many worried that Baath Party loyalists or Islamic militants — four of the 19 people arrested in the bomb attack are alleged to have ties to Al Qaeda — were preparing another strike to further destabilize the nation. The Baath Party was dominated by Sunnis who during Hussein's regime repressed the larger population of Shiites.

      "There will definitely be some large emotions" at the funeral, said Maj. Rick Hall of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, which oversees Najaf. "We're relying primarily on the hopes that the religious and political leaders will be able to effectively control the people."

      U.S.-led forces have about 1,500 troops in the area. Their mission is sensitive. Religious and city leaders have requested that American soldiers not patrol too close to Muslim holy sites. The Americans have so far complied and are relying on 3,000 Iraqi police, including a special contingent of 400 officers that is expected to set up a post near the mosque during the funeral.

      "We'll evaluate the situation," said Lt. Gen. James Conway, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which is based north of Najaf. "We'll have to have very compelling reasons to change our strategy. You don't want to be in close proximity to a large, emotional crowd. They don't need Marines watching over them."

      Many Shiites blamed U.S.-led forces for lax security after last week's bombing. Conway said: "Najaf asked us not to patrol in the area of the shrine. Those folks know you can't have it both ways and get mad [at us] when something happens."

      At the shot-up house of the Baath Party official Monday night, children crunched over broken glass and the curious came to peek. Hours earlier, witnesses said, the Badr teams sealed off parts of the street and attacked. They scaled the walls around the home and dragged away Daami and his son.

      Most people in the neighborhood were glad they were gone. Police declined to discuss the matter, or whether they had made any arrests.

      "The Baath Party here is still powerful," said Hussain Shubbar, a Shiite, crying as young men surrounded him. "They must get the Baathists out or they will kill us all. We know they are planning more attacks."

      Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson and Carol J. Williams in Baghdad contributed to this report. Staff writer Paul Richter contributed from Washington.
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