NAJAF,Iraq – In the deadliest attack since the Iraq war ended, a massive car bomb detonated outside a sacred Shiite shrine in Najaf (search) after Friday prayers, killing 85 people, including a prominent cleric.
Fox News' Steve Harrigan reported that officials in Iraq said as many as three car bombs could have been used in the attack.
Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim had just delivered a sermon calling for Iraqi unity when the deadly blast occurred, killing him and injuring more than 140.
Many say the attack was an assassination of the Shiite leader. Some blamed the attack on factions loyal to former dictator Saddam Hussein, who was a member of the minority Sunni Muslim sect. Others saw the attack as part of a generational battle for leadership of the Shiites, who are more than 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people.
Najaf is the headquarters of Iraq's most powerful Shiite rivals, including followers of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani and Moqtada al-Sadr.
Ahmad Chalabi (search), the leader of Iraqi National Congress (search) and a Governing Council member, blamed the attack on those behind the Aug. 19 suicide truck bombing at the U.N. headquarters in Iraq that killed at least 23 people and injured more than 100. He offered no evidence to support his claim.
"I don't hold the American forces responsible for the al-Hakim assassination," he told Al-Jazeera. "But I hold the coalition forces responsible for security in Iraq. The Americans have taken responsibility for security in Iraq and I appeal to them to keep the peace."
Dr. Ishan al-Khosai at Najaf Teaching Hospital said there were 80 dead at his facility. At Najaf Hospital, Dr. Faisal Ouda said there were five dead from the blast. Doctors reported 142 wounded, many critically, and the toll was expected to rise. Arab satellite broadcasters Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya both reported 229 injured. Medical facilities throughout Najaf were thronged with people looking for relatives and loved-ones.
The blast gouged a 3-foot wide crater in the street in front of the mosque, tore apart nearby cars and reduced neighboring shops to a tangled mass of metal, wood and corpses.
Hours after the bombing, residents screamed in the streets in grief and anger. Some attacked reporters, while others continued searching through the debris for more victims.
Men and women pressed their hands and faces against the doors of the mosque, which was closed after the blast. Mosaic tiles were blown off the gold-domed building, a sacred Shiite shrine where the Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad is buried. The building, which is visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims each year, appeared only slightly damaged.
The bombing was certain to complicate American efforts to pacify an increasingly violent Iraq.
No coalition troops were in the area of the mosque out of respect for the holy site, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jim Cassella said in Washington. U.S.-led troops have been asked to stay away from the mosque by Shiite officials.
An Associated Press reporter in Najaf on Thursday saw no U.S. troops in the city, which is 110 miles south of Baghdad. However, after the bombing, American troops stood guard outside the city's main hospital although they were not in the area around the mosque. Spanish forces, assuming control of the region from the U.S. Marines, were seen in small numbers on the outskirts.
In Washington, Defense Department officials said the Iraqi police would lead the investigation into the bombing, and U.S. investigators would assist only if asked.
L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian official in Iraq, denounced the bombing, saying it demonstrated that "the enemies of the new Iraq will stop at nothing."
"Again, they have killed innocent Iraqis. Again, they have violated one of Islam's most sacred places. Again, by their heinous action, they have shown the evil face of terrorism," Bremer said in a statement.
Iranian political analyst Morad Veisi said from Tehran that the killing of al-Hakim "is a blow to Iraq's unity" by those who seek to sow discord between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.
"The killing appears to have sought to deny Shiite Muslims an effective role in Iraq's future at a time when Iraq is gradually preparing for elections," he said, adding that the United States shares the blame for failing to provide adequate security.
While the Shiites themselves are battling for control of the sect and its future, there was no evidence the bombing was the work of the younger Shiite faction. That group has strongest support in Baghdad's Sadr City slum and has been trying to wrest control from al-Hakim followers.
About 1,000 al-Hakim followers demonstrated in front of the headquarters of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Sadr City. Some sat weeping; others shouted for revenge.
Al-Hakim, 64, was the council's leader, dividing his time since the end of the war between Tehran and Najaf. The council had been formed in Iran during the exile of many leading Shiites.
The ayatollah belonged to one of the most influential families in Iraq's Shiite community. His brother, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, is a member of the U.S.-picked interim government and led the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, headquartered in Iran before the war.
Younger Shiites have been fighting for power with the more traditional Shiite Muslims in the city and region, trying to grab control from the al-Hakim family.
Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, who is not yet 30, and his young followers have sought to replace more traditional Shiite factions, portraying themselves as the ones doing the most to redress decades of suppression under Saddam.
Students of Shiism, however, say al-Sadr draws most of his support from the historical following developed by his father, a leading Shiite academic murdered by Saddam.
The power struggle has centered on Najaf, the holiest Shiite Muslim city in Iraq.
The blast came a week after a bombing at the Najaf home of another of Iraqi's most important Shiite clerics killed three guards and injured 10 others. It exploded at the home of Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim — a relative of the slain ayatollah — just after noon prayers Aug. 24.
A day after Saddam's ouster, a mob at the Imam Ali mosque hacked to death Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a Shiite cleric who had just returned from exile, at a meeting called to reconcile rival groups.
Earlier Friday, attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades at two U.S. convoys in separate ambushes, killing one American soldier and wounding six, the U.S. military said.
The death raised the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq to 282. Of those, 67 have died in combat since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq.
Also on Friday, President Bush signed an executive order that expands his authority to seize the assets of former Iraqi senior officials and their relatives to help rebuild Iraq.
While the order does not designate any new individuals, it makes it possible for U.S. officials to confiscate the assets of immediate family members and entities owned or controlled by the former officials — categories not covered under previous Bush orders.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.