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Slain cleric's brother tells U.S.: Get out now

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 3, 2003

NAJAF, Iraq - The brother of a leading Shiite cleric slain in a car bomb attack raged against the American-led occupation Tuesday and demanded that the troops leave Iraq. In Baghdad, another car bomb exploded outside police headquarters, killing one and wounding 13.

About 400,000 mourners took to the streets, flailing their backs and pounding their chests in anguish at the cleric's funeral. In an angry funeral oration, the cleric's brother blamed the U.S. occupation forces, saying lax security led to the attack at Iraq's most sacred Shiite mosque.

Men clad in white robes and dark uniforms brandishing Kalashnikov rifles stood guard along the roof of the gold-domed Imam Ali mosque, where Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim was killed Friday in the bloodiest attack since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Accounts of the death toll ranged from more than 80 to more than 120.

"The occupation force is primarily responsible for the pure blood that was spilled in holy Najaf, the blood of al-Hakim and the faithful group that was present near the mosque," said Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the ayatollah's brother and a member of the U.S.-picked Governing Council.

L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, said at a Baghdad news conference that U.S. occupation authorities will push the new Iraqi Cabinet to assume governing duties and want to quickly train Iraqis to take over security.

He insisted there was no rift between the coalition and the Governing Council.

"I completely agree with the argument that we should find ways quickly to give Iraq and Iraqis more responsibility for security," he said. "They (the Governing Council) have encouraged us to do what we were already doing, which is putting Iraqis ... in Iraqi security."

Bremer, a former diplomat and counterterrorism expert, said as many as 60,000 Iraqis are already involved in security or undergoing training.

"What we need at this point is better intelligence to find out where the terrorists are who are killing Iraqis," he said.

Al-Hakim has said he would not resign from the Governing Council but spoke with great anger about the American military's inability to pacify the country.

"This force is primarily responsible for all this blood and the blood that is shed all over Iraq every day," he said, voicing the frustrations of Iraqis throughout the country. The criticism could signal an open fissure in the historically cooperative relationship between the Shiites and the U.S.-led civilian and military occupation.

"Iraq must not remain occupied and the occupation must leave so that we can build Iraq as God wants us to do," he said.

Earlier, the slain ayatollah's son warned that the country had entered a dangerous new era.

"Our injured Iraq is facing great and dangerous challenges in which one requires strength," Mohammed Hussein Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim said at one stop in the third day of a procession that began in Baghdad and pushed to Najaf, 110 miles south of the capital.

Unable to recover al-Hakim's body after the blast, the family buried a coffin containing his watch, pen and wedding ring. The coffin was lowered below the parched ground in the 1920 Revolution Square, a cemetery set aside for martyrs in the Shiite Muslim uprising against British occupation. Al-Hakim's 15 bodyguards, who died with him in the car bombing, were buried in neighboring plots.

As Tuesday's funeral was about to begin, the car bomb exploded outside police headquarters in Baghdad, killing one officer and wounding 13 others in the latest attack apparently targeting Iraqis working with the American-led occupation. An unknown number of bystanders also were wounded.

Acting police Chief Hassan al-Obeidi, who has offices in the headquarters building and is closely associated with the occupation authority, was not harmed. There were U.S. soldiers in the nearby Baghdad police academy, but they also were unharmed.

It was the fourth car bomb in the country in the past month. Earlier blasts included the mosque in Najaf, the Jordanian Embassy and the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

Also Tuesday, a Black Hawk helicopter crashed south of Baghdad, killing one U.S. soldier and injuring a second in a "nonhostile" incident, U.S. military spokesman Spc. Anthony Reinoso said.

Two U.S. soldiers were killed and a third was wounded when a bomb went off Monday beside their convoy in southern Iraq, the military reported Tuesday.

The deaths raised to 286 the number of American forces killed in the Iraq war. Of those 148 died since May 1 when President Bush declared an end to major fighting. Seventy soldiers have died in combat since the declaration.

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