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Mass mourning for Iraq cleric, five held over bomb
( 2003-09-01 09:25) (Agencies)

Weeping and beating their chests, a sea of mourners filled northern Baghdad on Sunday for the funeral rites of a top Shi'ite Muslim cleric killed in a bombing as up to five Iraqis were detained over the attack.

The governor of the holy city of Najaf, scene of Friday's car bombing in which 83 people were killed and 175 were wounded, said the suspects had links to the old power structure of ousted President Saddam Hussein.

"There are several suspects, none of whom has citizenship other than Iraqi," said Haidar al-Mayyali, as investigators searched for clues on the perpetrators of the deadliest attack in Iraq since U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam on April 9.

Asked about reports the attackers had links to al Qaeda, Mayyali told a news conference: "There is no exact information on this matter." Washington has blamed attacks on its troops and other targets mainly on Saddam loyalists, but has made increasing mention of al Qaeda and other foreign fighters.

Friday's bombing intensified international debate on stabilizing Iraq, with Russia saying it would back a United Nations force for the country -- even under U.S. command.

In a sign diplomatic moves may be quickening, President Bush, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian President Vladimir Putin held phone talks on Sunday.

Crying men and women dressed in black thronged streets around Baghdad's golden-domed Mousa al-Kadhim mosque for the start of the funeral rites for Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, who advocated cautious cooperation with Washington.

The tens of thousands of mourners chanted and beat their chests in traditional Shi'ite rituals as the coffin draped in a large black cloth was carried through the crowd to a truck, guarded by men with automatic rifles.

Hakim, who returned to Iraq from 23 years of exile in Iran after U.S.-led forces toppled Saddam, headed the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the country's most prominent Shi'ite groups.

His killing at Najaf's Imam Ali mosque -- one of the holiest sites in Shi'ite Islam -- sent shockwaves through Iraq's Shi'ites. They make up around 60 percent of the 26 million population and were repressed by Saddam, a Sunni Muslim.


The funeral procession will take in several Shi'ite holy sites in Iraq before a burial ceremony on Tuesday in Najaf, some 100 miles south of Baghdad.

Like many other Shi'ites, Hakim's nephew Ammar al-Hakim blamed Saddam supporters for the attack, but said investigations also showed involvement by "certain extremists (who) could have extensions beyond Iraq." Some analysts say Shi'ites opposed to Hakim's moderate policies could be to blame.

The dead cleric's brother, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who sits on Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council that Washington sees as a first step toward democratic elections, said U.S.-led forces bore some responsibility as security was in their hands.

Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, a top Shi'ite scholar, said he was suspending his council membership in protest at Hakim's killing.

U.S. officials say they face a tough balancing act as they do not want to offend Muslims by placing troops near holy sites.

The bombing followed similar attacks this month on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad and Jordan's embassy that killed dozens.

Authorities said two booby-trapped cars with around 1,500 lb of explosives had been used in the attack.

Some clerics in Saudi Arabia said a security crackdown on Muslim militants in the kingdom after deadly suicide bombings in May was pushing the radicals to head to Iraq. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has a Saudi family background.

Since Bush declared major combat over on May 1, 65 U.S. and 11 British soldiers have been killed by hostile fire and the U.S.-led administration in Baghdad has been plagued by sabotage to the country's potentially lucrative oil industry.

Some diplomats argue there would be less hostility toward a U.N.-sponsored and more multinational force than the current U.S.-dominated one of around 150,000 soldiers.

Washington has recently appeared more open to a possible U.N. force, as long as it has the command, and major powers have been discussing the possibility of a new U.N. resolution to encourage more nations to send troops to Iraq.

U.S. legislators pressed Bush to spell out the cost of the occupation of Iraq, with some Congress sources expecting a push for an emergency spending bill of $20 billion or more this year.

"America's mission in Iraq is too important to fail. Given the stakes, we cannot launch this 'generational commitment' to changing the Middle East on the cheap," Senator John McCain, a member of Bush's Republican Party, wrote in the Washington Post.

Bush, facing a campaign to win re-election next year, returned to Washington at the weekend after holidaying at his Texas ranch. Opinion polls show growing unease about troop deaths in Iraq, but that support for the mission remains firm.

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