Terror At A Shrine

  • When the bomb went off shortly after 2 p.m., the narrow lane, crammed with people, acted as a muffler. Just 300 yards away there was only a low boom, like a faraway thunderclap. It was as if the sound had been absorbed by the tens of thousands of devout Shi'ites gathered outside their faith's holiest shrine to listen to Friday prayers over the speakers. But then a louder sound rumbled down the lane and into the nearby square — the anguished shriek emerging from a thousand throats. Panicked worshippers charged into the square, their dust-covered dishdashas spattered with blood. "It's a bomb, a bomb!" screamed a man, his eyes wide with fear, his face pockmarked by shrap-shrapnel lacerations. "I think they have murdered the Syed."

    Whoever they turn out to be, the man was right. They had. Among the more than 80 people who died when a car bomb exploded outside the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, 120 miles south of Baghdad, was Ayatullah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, one of the nation's most senior Shi'ite clerics and the founder of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). He had been leading the Friday prayers in the mosque. The atrocity was the most devastating event since the end of formal hostilities in the Iraq war and counts as one of the worst single acts of violence against civilians anywhere in the world in modern times. In Washington, President Bush said the bombing "demonstrates the cruelty and desperation of the enemies of the Iraqi people." It demonstrates something else too: the extraordinary complexity of the challenge facing U.S. troops in Iraq, who must contend with not just violence directed at them but also the possibility of widespread strife among Iraq's various political, ethnic and religious groups.

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    At first the Ayatullah's fate was unclear. The blast occurred moments after the Friday morning prayers, and most of those outside believed he had not yet left the shrine to Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, in the heart of Najaf. Assuming that al-Hakim was still inside, many had thought he would have been protected from the explosion by the shrine's massive western wall and its huge door, the Bab-e-Kibbleh, which remained standing. But when the bomb went off, the 64-year-old cleric was outside the shrine and about to get into his car. He was killed instantly.

    Across the lane from the wall, a crater in the black-tar road marked the spot where the bomb exploded. Within 30 ft. were the twisted carcasses of at least seven cars — alHakim's white Toyota Land Cruiser among them — most mangled beyond recognition and still ablaze. In the market across from the shrine, the blast reduced several shops to mounds of rubble. Street vendors' stalls that had been laden with dried fruits and nuts were incinerated, their contents sprayed across the area. The few people who ran toward the bomb site were showered by a hail of pistachios and almonds.

    At the site of the explosion, the air was quickly filled with the sickly sweet odor of burning human flesh. The walls of the shrine saved thousands of worshippers inside, but those outside felt the full force of the blast. Charred victims were strewn across the narrow lane, some still alive, if only barely. The injured ran, stumbled or crawled away, blood spouting from their wounds. A man leaned against a burning car, his clothes incinerated and strips of skin hanging from his elbows and knees. As rescuers tried to guide him to safety, it became clear that the flesh on his back had melted and fused to the paint of the car. He was ripped off the car, laid down on a jury-rigged stretcher — a sheet of cloth pulled from the wreckage of a fabric shop — and hurried away by four men.

    The bolts of fabric from the shop came in handy. By the time the first fire truck roared up, barely 10 minutes after the blast, at least a dozen shrouds had been fashioned from the cloth. One of them, made of polyester, caught an ember and began to blaze, blackening the body underneath it. Two of the rescuers turned away to throw up. Handcarts were pressed into service as makeshift hearses. The fire truck hosed the cars down. A puddle gathered in the crater, and rescuers turned plastic iceboxes into makeshift scoops to take the water out of the crater and use it to douse small fires in the wreckage of the shops.

    Even before the first ambulances arrived on the scene, speculation about the perpetrators began. "This is the revenge of Saddam Hussein," sobbed a young man as he helped cover a charred corpse with a bloodstained sheet. Bystanders shouted anti-Saddam slogans. Then an elderly man in a red fez, which identified him as a member of the shrine staff, screamed, "Not Saddam, by God, but the Wahhabis! They are the enemies of the Shi'as!" The accusation against the austere, fundamentalist sect of Islam was taken up by the rapidly growing crowd. Quickly abuse was aimed at Osama bin Laden; for many Iraqis, Wahhabism and al-Qaeda are interchangeable.

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