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Cleric's Death A Challenge To U.S.

Followers of a faith steeped in martyrdom, mourning and physical pain, Iraq's Shiite Muslims are still reeling from the assassination of Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, one of their most revered religious leaders.

Only when their tears finally dry will they see just what they have lost. Al-Hakim had the rare mix of religious authority and political acumen needed to put the long-oppressed Shiites in control of Iraq.

"Our loss can never be compensated," said Kazim al-Qazweini, an imam in Najaf, where Al-Hakim was killed on Aug. 29 by a bomb that tore through a crowded street outside a Shiite Muslim shrine.

The attack, which killed between 80 and 125 people, also has cost the United States a crucial figure in the effort to placate Iraq after Saddam Hussein's ouster in April.

In other developments:

  • In a 15-minute nationally televised speech from the Cabinet Room, President Bush said he will ask Congress for $87 billion to fight terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan, appealing for troops and money from other countries, even those who opposed the U.S.-led war.
  • Iraq's new foreign minister, a member of the Kurdish minority, said he is going to this week's Arab League meeting in Egypt to claim Baghdad's seat in the organization, not beg for it. Iraq's seat on the pan-Arab group's council of ministers has remained empty since Saddam Hussein's ouster in April. The Cairo-based organization has refused to recognize the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council, which was put in place in July.

    Al-Hakim was head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution, an opposition group he founded in exile in 1982. His decision to allow the group to join the U.S.-picked Governing Council gave the 25-member body a measure of legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of many skeptical Iraqis.

    Al-Hakim's brother, Governing Council member Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, has succeeded him as head of the SCIRI, but he does not command his late brother's following and respect — both will be needed to woo Iraq's majority Shiites into supporting the U.S.-backed political process toward democratic rule in Iraq.

    For now, many Shiites in Najaf are too consumed by grief to consider the political consequences of al-Hakim's death.

    Women in black chadors weep as they seek the blessings of Imam Ali, touching and kissing the varnished doors of his shrine. Nearby men squat in gloomy silence on straw mats or stand at attention, piously murmuring prayers in remembrance.

    All around the city, walls are dotted with black banners, especially around the shrine, where the cassette players of street vendors fill the air with melancholic songs about dark moments in Shiite Islam or set to the rhythm of chest beating, a Shiite mourning ritual.

    The faith has its roots in a bloody leadership struggle following the death of Islam's 7th century Prophet Muhammad. Imam Ali, Muhammad's cousin, and his son Hussein are the sect's most revered saints. Under the 23-year rule of Saddam, a member of Islam's mainstream Sunni faction, tens of thousands of Shiites were executed, forced into exile or jailed.

    Al-Hakim's loss comes at a delicate time for the United States in Iraq. With him out of the way, militant young Shiites led by sheik Moqtada al-Sadr may be tempted to step up their street agitation against U.S. occupation and harden their criticism of the Governing Council or moderate clerics like Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani, arguably Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric.

    The prospect of Shiite rivalries escalating into street clashes could herald the end of Washington's ambitious plans to have a democratically elected government in Iraq in less than two years. It also would pose a serious security challenge at a time when U.S. troops are coming under daily attacks and many Iraqis are seething over what they see as America's failure to fully restore basic services and provide security.

    Al-Sadr makes no secret of his contempt for Iraqis cooperating with the U.S. occupation. At 30, he is not considered an authoritative religious figure, but his group's well organized street protests in recent months have significantly raised his profile.

    Already, the Najaf bombing has led several Shiite leaders to demand that they be allowed to take charge of security for themselves and their supporters. Their demands received a sympathetic response from some Governing Council members, but were rejected by L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq, according to a coalition official speaking on condition of anonymity.

    But armed militiamen identified by their armbands as members of the Badr Brigade, SCIRI's military wing, have made a defiant reappearance in Najaf, coming out in force during the Friday prayers at Imam Ali's shrine. The militia was ordered to disband by the U.S. military soon after the fall of Baghdad on April 9.

    On Saturday, in what appeared to be a policy shift, Bremer said that militias in Najaf were operating "with the full cooperation of the coalition forces."

    Coalition officials have hinted that private militias, including the Badr Brigade, may be allowed to provide security around Shiite holy sites. U.S. forces have kept clear of such places so as not to offend religious sensitivities.

    The reappearance of Badr militiamen has fed tensions in the city and was being used, together with the perceived U.S. failure to prevent the Aug. 29 attack, as an excuse by other Shiite factions to ignore the ban on carrying firearms in public.

    "The Americans are neither providing security nor are they allowing others to do the job," said sheik Hassan al-Zurqani, the Baghdad spokesman for al-Sadr. "They cannot protect themselves, so how they are going to protect us?"

    On Wednesday, several armed men loyal to al-Sadr appeared outside the cleric's Najaf home. U.S. troops later arrived and ordered them inside, according to the coalition official. The armed men complied without incident.

    Najaf, home to the country's top Shiite clerics and religious schools, has been tense for months because of Shiite rivalries. A prominent Shiite cleric related to the late al-Hakim was injured in an apparent assassination attempt last month. In April, a Najaf mob hacked to death a Shiite cleric who had just returned from exile.

    Dozens of armed policemen now guard the Imam Ali shrine. Haider Mehdi, the city's U.S.-backed governor, now travels around the city surrounded by armed guards wearing bulletproof vests. A pickup truck with a machine-gun mounted on the back follows his car.

    While those responsible for the Najaf carnage remain unknown — suspects include Saddam supporters, radical Shiites, militant Sunnis and foreign terrorists — the bombing was being used by disgruntled Sunnis to suggest that Shiites needed to put their own house in order before they can run the country.

    Although a minority, Sunnis have traditionally enjoyed a monopoly of political power in Iraq, leaving the Shiites on the sidelines. Shiites have been a majority in Iraq since the 19th century and should win a majority when a general election is held, possibly next year.