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US, Iraqis hold 19 men in bombing

Shi'ite mourners call for revenge

NAJAF, Iraq -- US military officials and Iraqi police yesterday detained almost a score of suspects, possibly linked to Al Qaeda, a day after a deadly bombing attack against the Shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf. But reaction to the third massive car bomb attack this month threatened to undermine the fragile political balance the United States and its allies have crafted for postwar Iraq.

As tens of thousands of enraged Shi'ites poured onto the streets of Najaf and Baghdad, mourning the death of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim and blaming US forces for failing to prevent the attack, Iraqi leaders demanded to be put in charge of security. One leading cleric withdrew from the 25-member Governing Council, which was handpicked by US officials last month to run Iraq until a permanent government is established. Some religious leaders hinted yesterday that they would not be able to restrain popular anger against US occupation authorities, who they say have failed to provide security across Iraq.

US officials and Iraqi leaders have attributed the spate of terror attacks -- on the Jordanian Embassy, the UN headquarters, and, on Friday, the epicenter of the Shi'a Muslim religion in the southern city of Najaf, where a bomb killed 85 people -- to a combination of Saddam Hussein loyalists and foreign Islamic terrorists.

Police have arrested 19 men -- many of them foreigners and all with admitted links to Al Qaeda -- in the Najaf bombing, the Associated Press reported, quoting a senior Iraqi investigator.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that two Iraqis and two Saudis detained after the attack gave information leading to the arrest of the others. They include two Kuwaitis and six Palestinians with Jordanian passports; the remainder were Iraqis and Saudis, he said.

"We will continue to hunt these people down. We will bring them to justice," said Charles Heatly, a spokesman for the US-led occupation authority.

But criticism intensified yesterday amid reports that Saudi Arabian or Pakistani nationals might have been involved in the attack on the Shi'ite shrine.

Heatly acknowledged that the US-led authority here was ultimately in charge of preventing terror attacks. He added, however, that "we all want to see the Iraqis taking more responsibility for their security."

Iraqi leaders and US officials are discussing creation of an Iraqi militia to maintain security, The New York Times reported today. Some Iraqi leaders said a force of several thousand men could be ready in a little more than a month. US officials acknowledged that such discussions had taken place, but provided no details.

The attack and its aftermath posed serious security and political problems for the coalition.

Stricken with grief, several clerics and scholars in Najaf said it would be difficult to fill the political vacuum left by Hakim, who headed the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. He was among those killed when a car laden with explosives detonated as his convoy left the mosque after Friday prayers..

"We considered him the real hope for Muslims in Iraq," said Sheikh Yaher al-Sadawi, 35, a Najaf scholar and Hakim follower.

"This will have a big effect, with perhaps some changes in Shi'ite politics."

That was apparent yesterday in Sadr City, the sprawling Shi'ite slum east of Baghdad that is home to many followers of a radical young cleric named Moqtada al-Sadr, who resented Hakim's cooperation with the US-backed Iraqi Governing Council.

Haidar al-Atwain, a member of Hakim's group who works at the organization's headquarters in Sadr City, said yesterday that angry Muslims were coming together across factional divides.

"We cannot control our young people any longer," Atwain said, speaking in earshot of a group of men carrying AK-47 rifles. "We can no longer make guarantees that the people will keep silent."

Imams have worked hard to convince angry followers not to attack elements of the deposed Ba'athist regime -- or coalition soldiers, Atwain said.

"All we have to do is say nothing, and that will give the people permission to do what they feel inside," he said. "We've had it up to here." The political fallout from Hakim's death appeared to have begun yesterday.

Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, a leading Shi'ite cleric regarded as a liberal, told reporters in Najaf that he was withdrawing from the 25-member Governing Council.

Uloum, one of the council's most senior figures, said the body had failed to persuade US officials to improve Iraq's security. Six council members told reporters in Baghdad earlier yesterday that an Iraqi government was urgently needed to control the country's spiraling violence.

Hakim, 64, had moderated his politics to provide a bridge between the US-led occupation authority and the fractious Shi'ite community. He returned to a hero's welcome in Najaf last May after 23 years in exile in Iran. Together with Uloum, Hakim was one of the few respected moderate voices among Shi'ites, who comprise about 60 percent of Iraqis.

He pushed hard for cooperation with the US officials running Iraq, sparking intense criticism from more radical Shi'ite leaders. Hakim's brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, joined the Governing Council, which was dismissed by many Iraqis as little more than an American showpiece.

A giant two-day funeral procession for Hakim is scheduled to begin in Baghdad early this morning and then head south over 124 miles, stopping at the holy city of Karbala, before ending on Tuesday in Najaf.

Outside Hakim's office yesterday, men consoled each other. "He always demanded the rights for all Iraqis, not just Shi'ites," said Seyed Ayad Abdul Razak, 30, a student of Hakim's. "He was the one voice who united Iraqis," he went on, as a friend sobbed next to him. "We don't know what we will do without him."

By midmorning, the divisions among Shi'ite groups appeared evident on Najaf's streets. As thousands arrived by bus from Sadr City, heated arguments erupted outside the shrine.

"We have to protect our borders!" shouted one Najaf resident, waving his fist at a Baghdad visitor. As grief turned to anger yesterday, many on Najaf's streets said they believed that hundreds of foreign extremists had filtered across Iraq's porous borders, joining forces with loyalists of Hussein's regime. Many suspected the extremists were Wahhabis, adherents to the strict interpretation of Islam favored by many in neighboring Saudi Arabia.

"We believe [the Wahhabi groups] are combining with the Ba'athists," said Qasim Hadi, 36, a former fighter in Hakim's militia organization, the Badr Brigades.

In interviews, several also blamed US officials for protecting their own forces while neglecting security for ordinary Iraqis. "This happened under America's eye," said Sa'ad Abdul Amir, 41, a trader. "They should protect our shrine."

A battalion of about 1,500 American soldiers, led by the US Marine Corps, has been stationed about five miles east of Najaf's shrine since late April. But under an agreement with local religious leaders, they agreed to keep away from the 1,000-year-old mosque.

About 400 armed Iraqi security guards have been trained to guard the religious sites. They were due to start Tuesday. But that plan was suspended yesterday, as US Marines met with Najaf politicians to discuss tightened security.

"For the first time they are actually suggesting that maybe coalition forces should be in the shrine area," said Major Rick Hall, executive officer of the First Batallion, Seventh Marine Corps in Najaf.

He said he believed the presence of American soldiers near the mosque might have dissuaded the insurgents plotting Friday's attack. "I think if they would not have been so adamant that we stay out of there, things might have been different," Hall said.

Walt reported from Najaf and Cambanis from Baghdad.

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