down with america? the ingrates

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    'Down with America' chants crowd as Shia Muslims mourn dead
    By Damien McElroy in Najaf
    (Filed: 31/08/2003)

    Packed into buses, pick-up trucks, taxis and cars, an estimated 500,000 mourners descended on the holy city of Najaf yesterday for the burial of Iraq's leading Shia cleric who was among at least 80 people killed by a car bomb on Friday.

    From dawn, a ceaseless stream of traffic clogged the roads around the sprawling cemetery of mud brick tombs. Devastated followers of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim walked the final mile to the sacred shrine of Imam Ali where the huge blast claimed the life of the key American ally.

    The crowds beat their chests in sorrow and denounced the American-led occupation of Iraq. Chants of "down with America" filled the air as two white lorries carried away the charred remains of the cars used in the attack. Some carried coffins wrapped in black shrouds bearing verses from the Koran.

    In turn abject and ecstatic, mourners demanded that Iraqi Shi'ites seize control of the country. "We cannot remain silent any more," said Hassan Abu Ali. "We must do something I will not allow our enemies to sleep peacefully any more."

    The bombed shrine contains the tomb of Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of Prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam. Fragments of metal and glass embedded in the mosque's intricate mosaics bore witness to the ferocious blast; thousands of shoes lay outside the mosque, left behind by worshippers at Friday prayers and scattered in all directions by the bomb.

    At the city mortuary, one man came to identify his brother from body parts recovered from the rubble. "Why him and why now?" asked the man, who gave his name only as Haidar. "We survived 30 years of Saddam to be murdered like this?" In the wake of the murderous bomb attacks on the the Jordanian embassy and the United Nations offices in Baghdad, the latest atrocity has dealt a further devastating blow to efforts by the American-led coalition authority to impose order on the country. It has also torn apart the majority Shia population.

    The ayatollah's grieving followers first directed their anger at Saddam Hussein, believing that his loyalists had murdered an old foe who returned from exile in Iran only after the dictator's overthrow.

    Then yesterday Iraqi police blamed the attack on two pro-Saddam fighters and two foreign Arabs with links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'eda terror network that promotes the alternative strand of Sunni Islam. Many suspect the ayatollah's Shia rivals.

    Whoever planted the bomb, however, his followers quickly apportioned overall blame to the American occupiers who they held to be responsible for failing to provide security.

    "Saddam, Wahabi [strict Sunni Islam], America and Israel: all of them are responsible for this terrible attack on an amazing scholar and leader," said Ghazi Wahan as he made his way to the shrine after a four-hour overnight journey from Basra to Najaf. "No to America. No to Saddam. Revenge for Islam."

    Yet only a short distance from the thronged city centre, traffic was light on the road into Najaf from Baghdad and Kerbala, Iraq's second holiest city. The Shia populations there are loyal to Muqtader al-Sadr, a young rabble-rouser who has rejected the United States occupation and spurned all attempts to involve him in the political process.

    Ayatollah al-Hakim had close links to Iran and its conservative supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, but nevertheless had become a cornerstone of coalition plans to implant democracy in Iraq. The involvement of his movement, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), in the new interim government gave much-needed credibility to the troubled political process.

    He had imposed a restraining hand on his followers, urging them to tolerate the American occupation in return for a quick transfer of power. But he is now gone and they are openly angry at the presence of US and British troops.

    More worrying than this for the White House, Downing Street and the coalition leaders in Baghdad's Republican Palace, his mantle as Iraq's leading Shia holy man has now passed to the 23-year-old al-Sadr.

    Despite his youth and lack of religious standing, al-Sadr has gained enormous popularity since the fall of Saddam with his fierce anti-US rhetoric.

    Yesterday he urged his supporters to stay at home in protest at coalition rule. "I call on the people to strike from work for three days in a peaceful way," he said. "Say nothing and do nothing without consulting Islamic scholars."

    He has formally condemned the attack on al-Hakim: "Curse by God those who hate Shia and Islam. The Ba'athists are the only people who seek benefit from this terrible act."

    The message also contained a stinging rebuke of the occupation authorities. "Be it known that America will not provide security for Iraq and will not let us do it," the statement went on. "It's the enemy of us, of you and of all believers."

    Al-Sadr owes his authority to his blood-stained lineage. Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, his father, is known as the Friday Martyr, since he was gunned down by Saddam's agents in 1999 after he defied the dictator by giving sermons following weekly prayers in Najaf. Photographs of the Grand Ayatollah and his uncle, who was also killed by Saddam, are the most common images on Iraqi streets.

    Meanwhile, seven American soldiers were wounded early yesterday when their vehicles hit a mine near the Syrian border. A day earlier, a US soldier died in an attack near Baghdad, the 65th killed in action since May 1.

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