8/30/03 7:34 PM Inches: 29.8 REGULAR BC-Iraq 8thLd-Writethru 08-30 1260
AP Photos XMJ105,107,112; XDG102; XRG110
By TAREK AL-ISSAWI
Associated Press Writer
NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — Police have arrested 19 men — many of them foreigners and all with admitted links to al-Qaida — in the car bombing of the Imam Ali shrine in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, a senior Iraqi investigator told The Associated Press on Saturday.
Two Iraqis and two Saudis grabbed shortly after the Friday attack gave information leading to the arrest of the others, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. They include two Kuwaitis and six Palestinians with Jordanian passports with the remainder Iraqis and Saudis, the official said, without giving a breakdown.
Initial information shows the foreigners entered Iraq from Kuwait, Syria and Jordan, the official said, adding that they belong to the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam.
“They are all connected to al-Qaida,” the official said.
Wahhabism is the strict, fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam from which al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden draws spiritual direction. Based in Saudi Arabia, its followers show little tolerance for non-Wahhabi Sunnis and Shiites.
Thousands of angry mourners gathered outside the damaged Imam Ali shrine Saturday, calling for vengeance in the killing of al-Hakim, a cherished Shiite leader and Saddam Hussein opponent who only in May had returned from exile in Iran.
While backing the formation of an Islamic state in Iraq, al-Hakim had also urged unity among hostile Shiite factions and tolerance of the American-led coalition.
“Our leader al-Hakim is gone. We want the blood of the killers of al-Hakim,” a crowd of 4,000 men chanted, beating their chests.
Tens of thousands of worshippers filled the shrine and the surrounding streets of Najaf, 110 miles southwest of Baghdad, for a funeral service for victims. Residents carried coffins on the tops of cars and backs of trucks.
Police pointed to similarities between the mosque bombing and two recent attacks.
The bomb at the Imam Ali shrine — the burial place of the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad — was made from the same type of materials used in the Aug. 19 truck bombing at the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, which killed 23 people, and the Jordanian Embassy vehicle bombing Aug. 7, which killed 19, the Iraqi official said.
U.S. officials have not confirmed any details of the arrests, which would substantiate Bush administration claims that bin Laden’s followers have taken their Islamic militant war against the West to Iraq, where U.S. forces are struggling to maintain security.
American authorities have not taken an active public role in the mosque investigation because of Iraqi sensitivity to any U.S. presence at the Najaf shrine, the most-sacred Shiite shrine in Iraq and the third holiest in the world after Mecca and Medina.
Hospital officials said 85 people died in the shrine bombing, including leading Shiite Muslim cleric Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim. Earlier tolls were reduced after some deaths were found to have been reported twice.
There was to be a service for al-Hakim in Baghdad early Sunday; his remains were to be buried Tuesday in Najaf, his birthplace and seat of the powerful al-Hakim family. Authorities said they have only found al-Hakim’s hand, watch, wedding band and a pen.
In response to the bombing, a highly respected Shiite cleric suspended his membership in the U.S.-chosen Iraqi interim Governing Council, citing a lack of security.
Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, in exile in London until Saddam’s ouster, said Saturday that his return to the council depended on the U.S.-led coalition’s handing security matters to Iraqis, so that Muslim shrines could be under Islamic protection.
“This act has pushed me to postpone my membership in the governing council because it can’t do anything concerning the security situation,” he said.
The men arrested claimed the recent bombings were designed to “keep Iraq in a state of chaos so that police and American forces are unable to focus” on the country’s porous borders, which foreign fighters are said to be crossing, the Iraqi official said.
The Najaf police official, who led the initial investigation and interrogation of the captives, said the prisoners described plots to assassinate political and religious leaders and to damage vital installations such as power plants, water supplies and oil pipelines.
In the latest sabotage, an explosion and fire Saturday struck the pipeline carrying oil from Iraq’s northern Kirkuk fields to Turkey. The blaze further delayed resumption of the vital link which costs Iraqis an estimated $7 million each day it is out of operation. The blast was the fourth to hit the line since it briefly reopened earlier this month.
In the shrine attack, 1,550 pounds of explosives were planted in two cars for the Imam Ali mosque attack, the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite broadcaster reported, quoting the Najaf governor. The U.N. bomb was about 1,000 pounds.
The FBI said the U.N. bomb was built from ordnance left over from Saddam’s regime, most of it made in the Soviet Union. Many explosives were wired together, including a 500-pound Soviet-era bomb, the agency said.
The shrine investigation was being handled entirely by Iraqi police in Najaf, but the FBI would assist if asked, coalition spokesman Charles Heatley told reporters. “It’s clearly in our interests that those responsible be brought to justice,” he said.
He said the coalition had sent $200,000 to Iraqi authorities in Najaf as a disaster relief fund and had earmarked $2 million for reconstruction in the city.
The coalition rejects claims it is not providing adequate security in Iraq, Heatley said.
The fundamentalist Wahhabists have a history of antagonism against Shiites and their ornate centers of worship — such as the Imam Ali shrine, with its gold dome and lavish blue mosaics.
Based on the strict teachings of 18th-century Saudi cleric Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab, Wahhabism was banned by Saddam. Now, scholars of Islam say the Wahhabis may be trying to cast themselves as protectors of the Sunnis, the minority that had ruled over the majority Shiites in Iraq.
The string of attacks appear aimed at those who cooperate with the United States.
The Jordanians have among the best ties with Washington of all Arab governments and have shown sympathy for the U.S.-picked interim Iraqi Governing Council. The United Nations was seen as a key to postwar reconstruction; its bombing caused many aid organizations to remove staff or whittle operations in a blow to improving daily life.
Shiites leaders, while openly resentful of the American occupation, had recommended patience — if not cooperation with the coalition. The Shiites stood to benefit greatly under U.S. plans for rebuilding after decades of oppression under Saddam.
The Najaf bombing set off a wave of criticism among Shiites for the U.S. inability to provide security nearly four months after President Bush declared major fighting.
U.S. officials believe militants from Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran are entering Iraq to attack Western interests. Bush said earlier this month that more foreign “al-Qaida-type fighters” have moved in.