Thousands of people took to the streets of the holy city to bury the three men killed on Sunday after unknown attackers blew up a gas cylinder outside Ayat Allah Muhammad Said al-Hakim’s office in Najaf, 180km south of Baghdad.
Hakim is one of the four top clerics in the Hawza, the highest religious authority of Iraq’s Shia community, which make up 60% of the country.
Some people blamed the attack on supporters of rival Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr and called for retaliation.
“The only way to stop this is for the people of Najaf to stop it. We will have to form our own militia,” said one man in the crowd.
Some senior clerics also blamed the killings on a group linked to al-Sadr, who has condemned the US occupation and refused to join the US-created Iraqi Governing Council.
Al-Sadr’s group has denied the accusation. Ammar Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the son of a senior Shia figure on Iraq’s US-appointed Governing Council, blamed occupying troops for the blast.
“We declare that the coalition forces are entirely responsible for what has happened because they are using tanks to try to bring peace,” he said in a funeral oration in the mausoleum of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali.
Shia leaders across the region
Power struggles in Najaf are a key influence on the political future of the Shia community, who were politically sidelined under ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Two of the three men killed were bodyguards of al-Hakim and the third was a cleric, according to the Ayat Allah’s spokesman.
The Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of the country’s Shia groups criticised for cooperating with the US occupying administration, said it was the target of the attack.
Hakim is an uncle of SCIRI leader Ayat Allah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, whose group is represented on the Governing Council.
Hakim had in recent weeks said he had received death threats. His spokesman on Monday said the attack might have been sparked by the Hawza’s cooperation with Iraq’s American occupiers.
“Since the end of the war the Shia regions (of Iraq) have not shown any resistance to the Americans,” said spokesman Abd Hussein al-Kadi.
Najaf, the power base of Iraq’s Shia, is locked in a battle between those prepared to cooperate with the occupying administration and those supporting resistance.
“Such criminal acts risk giving a pretext to the occupying forces to impose their suppressive policies…”
Sayyed Hassan Nasr Allah,
Meanwhile, Shia leaders in the region condemned the blast.
In Beirut, Hizb Allah Secretary General, Sayyed Hassan Nasr Allah, criticised the explosion as a “very serious development”.
“This incident must be met with harsh condemnation from all religious scholars and the community. And a strong message must be sent to these criminals and whoever is behind them,” said Nasr Allah in a statement.
“Our community will not tolerate…the attack on the life or seat of our great Islamic jurists,” he said.
Iran’s supreme spiritual leader, Ayat Allah Ali Khamenei, also condemned the attack, saying it was a plot against Islam and Shia, according to state media.
“Such criminal acts risk giving a pretext to the occupying forces to impose their suppressive policies on the defenceless people of Iraq and will lead to insecurity in the war-torn country at a time when the Iraqi people are in dire need of unity and solidarity,” he was quoted as saying.