By Clive Bradley
It is still not known who planted the bomb which killed Ayatollah Muhammed Bakir al-Hakim in Najaf last Friday (August 29), along with 95 others, and wounding nearly 150 others. Rival Shi'a Muslim factions have been blamed, along with Saddam loyalists, the occupying forces themselves, Saudi agents, and representatives of al-Qaida. Whoever was responsible, it represents a major blow to American attempts to construct a stable regime in Iraq, and reveals the huge gulf between the rhetoric of securing peace in the country and the bitter reality.
Al-Hakim was one of the most important political leaders in Iraq, leader of the Shi'a Islamist Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), which was based in neighbouring Iran. Sciri has 15,000 or so militia men, organised in the Badr Corps (and trained by the Iranian revolutionary guards), and has been pivotal to the attempts to create an Iraqi government in alliance with the US occupation. Before the war with Iraq, Sciri was involved with the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi, withdrawing as war plans progressed. The Badr Corps organised incursions from Iraq during the war itself. When the regime fell, Sciri initially remained aloof from American attempts to cobble together a friendly government, but finally allowed its representative-Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, Muhammed Bakir's brother, and Sciri's Number Two-to be included.
It seems likely that whoever murdered Sciri's leader, it is because of the organisation's collaboration with the occupying forces. Much "resistance" to the Americans-and to the British army in the south-has been organised by Saddam loyalists, or by foreign guerrillas. Some is the result merely of intense frustration in a country overrun with guns-but the spectacular assassination of al-Hakim, like the suicide bombing at the United Nations only a few days earlier, was plainly the work of serious and highly-organised people.
The main rival Shi'a movement is that associated with Muqtada al-Sadr, which has a much larger base in the slums of Baghdad and other cities, and has refused to participate in the US-sponsored governing council. Al-Sadr's movement is widely believed to have been responsible for the murder of a moderate cleric in Najaf shortly after the fall of the Ba'th regime-though, of course, they deny it.
Sciri, in fact, has little real support outside a few towns close to the Iranian border. Whereas Muqtada al-Sadr's group built its base under the regime, Sciri was an entirely exile group. For this reason they are denounced by al-Sadr's group as cowards.
Other Shi'a leaders, including the country's leading cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, are still more moderate than Sciri, and see the al-Sadr movement as irresponsible rabble rousers. They, too, have faced terrorist attacks.
But it seems unlikely that rival Shi'a groups would have carried out the spectacular bombing in Najaf-if only because it took place outside one of Shi'a Islam's holiest of sites, the tomb of Imam Ali (from whom Shi'a Islam is derived), and on a Friday, the Muslim sabbath.
For sure, the brutal murder-nearly one hundred people killed with the Ayatollah, many of them still unidentified-for many ordinary Iraqis will symbolise the desperate uncertainties of post-war Iraq. George W Bush declared the war over on May 1. But electricity still works only intermittently, likewise telephones; and even petrol remains scarce. As Jessica Stern, writing in the New York Times (August 20), puts it: "Iraqis could care less about democracy, they just want assurance that their daughters won't be raped or their sons killed on the way to the grocery store."
The members of the Governing Council are now, unsurprisingly, fearful for their lives, and warning that if the occupying forces don't step up their security, more deaths could ensue. Indeed, a central and paradoxical charge against the US forces is that their presence in Najaf was too little to ensure the Ayatollah's safety.
An enormous funeral procession through Baghdad, and then the holy city of Najaf itself, followed al-Hakim's death. The US kept a low profile, allowing the ill-equipped Iraqi police-and Sciri's Badr Corps militia-to control the mourners. This reflects a high degree of popular hostility to the American (and British) army. A survey by the Iraq Centre for Research and Strategic Studies showed that half the Iraqis polled attribute the levels of violence to American provocation; in the towns of Ramadi and Falluja, it was nearly 90%.
The US will certainly not want to see Sciri or other local militias develop unchecked (and earlier in the year demanded that they surrender their weapons). But any attempt to interfere with mourners this week could have been a disaster.
Whoever killed Muhammed Bakir al-Hakim, the future of Iraq looks as uncertain as ever, and promises yet more bloodshed.