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300,000 Shiites mourn cleric

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 1, 2003

NAJAF, Iraq - Vowing revenge and beating their chests, more than 300,000 Shiites marched Sunday behind the rose-strewn coffin of a beloved cleric assassinated in a car bombing. The FBI said it would join the investigation into the Najaf bombing, which killed 125 people.

Iraqi police said the bomb that exploded after noon prayers Friday at the vast Imam Ali mosque contained the equivalent of 1,650 pounds of TNT.

In Washington, FBI spokesman John Iannarelli said the bureau will join the investigation in Najaf.

He said the bureau will provide forensic analysis of the evidence and said it was still working out what other assistance the FBI, which has agents assigned to the region, would provide.

The call for the FBI to join the investigation represented a shift after U.S. authorities had taken a hands-off approach out of deference to the sacredness of the mosque, which houses the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed's son-in-law, Ali. Iraqi police say 19 suspects arrested may have links to al-Qaida.

Many Shiites have blamed Saddam Hussein loyalists for the blast, but it has also stoked anger at the U.S. occupation forces among some faithful, who say the Americans have not provided security since Hussein's fall.

With a 110-mile march from Baghdad to the holy city of Najaf, Shiites honored Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, a moderate cleric and once-exiled opponent of Hussein. A three-day mourning period began early Sunday with services at al-Kadhimiya shrine in the capital.

Marchers followed a flatbed truck carrying a symbolic coffin: Authorities said they found only the cleric's hand, watch, wedding band and pen in the wreckage.

Halfway along the route, at Karbala, the second-holiest Shiite city after Najaf, 3,000 mourners gathered at a shrine to await the procession. They prayed, beat drums and flagellated themselves with chains as the ayatollah's coffin and the huge procession neared. His funeral is planned for Tuesday in Najaf, his birthplace.

The U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority said that Najaf Gov. Haider Mehadi asked the FBI to join Iraqi police in the investigation, and that the American investigators would travel to Najaf shortly.

FBI agents are leading the investigations into both the Aug. 7 bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad and attack on the U.N. headquarters 12 days later.

Iraqi police told the Associated Press that they have arrested 19 men - many of them foreigners and all with admitted links to al-Qaida - in the blast.

In Najaf, Maj. Rick Hall, spokesman for the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines said the death toll now stood at 125 with 142 wounded, some seriously. He also said the Marine transfer of the south-central territory around Najaf to an international force led by Poland, set for this week, had been put on hold.

He said U.S. forces had two men in custody who were handed to them by Iraqi authorities.

Hall denied reports that the Marines would patrol around the mosque, citing Islamic sensitivities to having non-Muslims in or around the country's holiest Shiite shrine. He said U.S. forces had offered Marine patrols of the area to the interim Governing Council in Baghdad and religious leaders in Najaf. An answer was expected in the next day or two, he said.

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