*Guerrillas near Baquba northeast of Baghdad fired rocket-propelled grenades at a US convoy, killing one US soldier and wounding four others. One of the wounded soldiers will have to lose his leg. A fair-sized bomb went off Friday outside the British military headquarters in the southern city of Basra, destroying two automobiles 100 yards from the HQ. No casualties were sustained from this bomb, which the British communique called “small.”
*The black Toyota Land Cruiser (some say it was a Volkswagen bus) was parked at the south entrance of the shrine of Imam `Ali and its attached mosque. Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, 63, and his entourage emerged from the entrance and got into three black Toyota Land Cruisers. Al-Hakim always exited from the south gate after giving the Friday prayer sermon at the Imam Ali mosque. Suddenly the fourth vehicle, which resembled those of al-Hakim, exploded, sending spurts of flame into the sky. The ayatollah’s Land Cruiser was left a tangled and charred mess, as were the other two with his aides. The adobe covering of the shrine entrance collapsed on other worshippers then about to exit. As of Friday evening, 17 corpses had been pulled out of the rubble there, but more were believed trapped beneath it. Two buildings on the other side of the street collapsed, one of which had a restaurant in it, and the other of which had a retail store. The customers were buried under the broken buildings. Ayatollah al-Hakim had delivered a sermon in which he had once again condemned Saddam and the Baath Party. (al-Zaman, al-Sharq al-Awsat)
Al-Hakim’s political rival, the young Muqtada al-Sadr, immediately condemned the bombing and called for a three-day closure of offices to mourn the fallen religious leader. (Some analysts suspect Muqtada’s followers, the Sadrists, in the bombing, but as you will see below I find that not very likely. It is true that there was no love lost between them.) Baqir’s brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, serves on the American-appointed Interim Governing Council. He condemned the attack and pledged that their organization, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, would continue. He is now the head of it.
Baqir’s father, Muhsin al-Hakim, had been the highest-ranking Shiite jurisprudent in Najaf in the 1960s. He died in 1970. Baqir was active in the al-Da`wa Party, which aimed at establishing a state based on Islamic law in Iraq, in the 1970s. In the late 1970s, in particular, the Shiites in Iraq were restive (it was the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq). Baqir was imprisoned for a time, and survived several (some say 7) assassination attempts. In 1980 he fled to Iran, at a time when Saddam was killing Shiite clerics he feared after the Iranian Revolution. Membership in the al-Da`wa Party was declared a capital crime. Saddam also invaded Iran. Baqir was involved in the establishment of an umbrella group for Iraqi dissidents in Tehran called the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq in 1982. It included al-Da`wa initially. In `1984, al-Da`wa withdrew from SCIRI (or SAIRI), to maintain its independence. In 1984, as well, Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim became the head of the Supreme Council.
SCIRI sent agents over the border to blow up things in Iraq, and developed a paramilitary called the Badr Brigades (later it grew to become the Badr Corps).
The Badr fighters infiltrated into Iraq, often through the swamps in the South, to carry out guerrilla attacks on the Baath government.
In the run-up to the American war on Iraq in 2002-2003, Baqir al-Hakim proved willing to cooperate with the Americans, despite being a hardliner close to Iranian Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei. Al-Hakim believed in Khomeini’s theory of clerical rule, but he was a pragmatist willing to accept a pluralistic, parliamentary government in Iraq initially. He thought the Shiite majority would eventually create an Islamic Republic there on the Iranian model. He met with Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress and other dissident groups, and SCIRI representatives held talks with the Americans.
Al-Hakim had an on-again off-again relationship with the US. He opposed a US occupation of Iraq, and wanted an immediate transition to a new Iraqi government, of which SCIRI would form part. He at one point threatened to have the Badr Corps fire on US troops if they tried to occupy the country. There were in fact firefights between the Badr Corps and the Marines in places like Baquba, and the US eventually insisted on the disarming of the Badr Corps. Al-Hakim initially declined to have SCIRI be part of the Interim Governing Council appointed by Paul Bremer, insisting that such a council should be elected. In this period he gave a sermon in Najaf in which he said that the US had shown its true colors as the Great Satan. In the end, he gave in and allowed his brother, Abdul Aziz, to serve on the IGC, but in return demanded that the US drop several other prospective appointees. He clearly did not like the US or the US occupation, and wanted a quick US withdrawal, but he was pragmatic enough to want his SCIRI to be well positioned to succeed the US as a major political force when they withdrew.
SCIRI probably has no significant grass roots in Iraq. There seems to be some loyalty to it in Baquba and Kut, eastern cities near Iran. It has proselytized in Basra and elsewhere in the South. But it seems a minority taste for most Iraqi Shiites. The Sadrists, who may number 2 million, dwarft SCIRI, which I suspect is just a few tens of thousands.
The U.S. has lost a pragmatic quasi-ally who signalled by his cooperation with the Americans that it was all right for Shiites to work through Bremer for a strong position in the new Iraq. Most other Shiite clerics refuse direct contact with the Americans. This bombing has certainly made Iraq even less governable.
*My reasoning in blaming the Baath Party for the bombing:
I saw Judith Yaphe of National Defense University interviewed by Soledad O’Brien on CNN Friday evening, and she gave an excellent overview of the possible perpetrators: Sadrists, Baathists and Sunni radicals.
In my NPR interview on Friday afternoon with Robert Siegel, I blamed the Saddam loyalists. Here is my reasoning:
I don’t believe that Muqtada al-Sadr or his followers would risk damaging the Shrine of Imam `Ali, among the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, with a huge truck bomb. They are if anything overly sensitive to the holiness of Shiite symbols. I know it is easy for secularized Westerners to be cynical about an argument that “he wouldn’t do that.” But I really do not think someone with his views and context would.
Moreover, it is not his modus operandi. Muqtada’s people have mobbed opponents, have stabbed them, have beaten them up and put them into the hospital, have surrounded their houses, and have threatened them. But they have never set off huge bombs. The most some of the ones in Sadr City (East Baghdad slums) have done is toss a grenade into a liquor store or cinema house, typically when no one is there, to enforce their puritanism.
If Muqtada had wanted Baqir al-Hakim dead, he could have simply sent another Shiite to worm his way into al-Hakim’s confidence and stick a shiv between his ribs. It is the Sunni Baath who could not have gotten close to him in this way so easily (a Tikriti accent can be heard, and there are lots of minutiae about Shiism a Sunni Baathist could not easily know). A remoter way of assassination thus makes sense for the Sunni Baath. This explosion almost certainly killed and wounded persons who have some loyalty to the al-Sadr family, even if they attend Friday prayers at the Imam Ali mosque rather than in Kufa. Why would Muqtada take such a shotun approach?
I also do not believe that Sunni radicals would set off a bomb next to Ali’s shrine. He is the fourth caliph of the Sunnis. Even though some extreme Wahhabis might dislike the idea of a shrine to anyone (and 19th century Wahhabis even targeted the tomb of the Prophet in Medina), it just does not fit their m.o. In all of al-Qaeda’s history, they have bombed embassies and foreign ships and foreign buildings, not Muslim holy places.
In contrast, this move makes perfect sense for Saddam loyalists. They have not scrupled to damage the shrine in the past, when they put down the 1991 uprising. Saddam sent out a videotape around August 15 calling on the Shiite clergy to declare jihad against the Americans. All of the major Shiite clerics, including Baqir al-Hakim rejected and derided this call. I believe that this bombing was the Saddam loyalists’ response to that rebuttal. It also punishes Baqir al-Hakim for cooperating with the Americans and for his years of guerrilla attacks on the Baath from Iran.
The Baathists may also hope that the al-Hakims and their followers will blame the Sadrists, provoking civil unrest that contributes to the country’s ungovernability for the Americans.
The Najaf bombing looks an awful lot like the bombing of the Jordanian embassy and the bombing of the UN headquarters. I now think all three are the work of Saddam loyalists, not of Sunni radicals with al-Qaeda links. All three targeted key de facto allies of the US, and have resulted in isolating it further. The Red Cross, Oxfam, and other aid agencies have much reduced their operations after the bombing of the UN headquarters, and IMF and World Bank officials have left, postponing important economic measures. Major Shiite clerics other than al-Hakim and his brother Abdul Aziz have refused direct contact with the Americans, and this reluctance is likely to have just been reinforced.
My considered opinion is that Saddam and the Baath loyalists have reverted to their old 1960s cell structure and are carefully planning out a series of high-profile attacks that have great strategic yield. The Baath wasn’t much as a military power in the 1990s, but as masters of dirty politics they still have no peer. Ask Abdel Karim Qasim, the Arif brothers, and the thousands of dead among the al-Da`wa Party officers and rank and file.