Iraqi Shia leader hurt in bomb blast

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The Independent Online

One of the most senior Shia clerics in Iraq was injured and three of his bodyguards were killed yesterday in a bomb attack on his house in the Shia holy city of Najaf.

One of the most senior Shia clerics in Iraq was injured and three of his bodyguards were killed yesterday in a bomb attack on his house in the Shia holy city of Najaf.

The attack on Ayatollah Mohammed Sayyed al-Hakim could ignite dangerous tensions over the control of Iraq's Shia Muslims. Ten other people were injured when the gas cylinder bomb exploded outside Ayatollah Hakim's house in Najaf after noon prayers.

"There was a strange man in the building outside [Ayatollah Hakim's] office. When someone went to see who it was, a bomb went off [killing] three security guards," said a spokesman for the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which is led by Ayatollah Hakim's nephew ­ but is not supported by the cleric.

If Ayatollah Hakim's injuries are more serious than initial reports suggested, violence between rival groups of Shias in Najaf may ensue. Iraqi newspapers reported last week that the ayatollah had received death threats, and was among three Shia leaders threatened with death by a rival Shia cleric shortly after Saddam Hussein was toppled on 9 April.

Differences of opinion over growing calls for Shia resistance to the occupation may lie behind the bombing.

On 10 April, Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a Shia cleric, was hacked to death at a mosque by a mob which also killed several others.

Ayatollah Hakim has allied himself with Iraq's highest religious authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Some radical Shia factions are unhappy with Ayatollah Sistani's refusal to be politically involved in opposing the US occupation, and his call for Iraq's Shias to stay calm.

"Obviously, terrorist groups belonging to the former regime are behind this incident," said Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, a supreme council leader who serves on the US-appointed Governing Council.

One group on which suspicion will fall is Muqtada al-Sadr's supporters. Mr Sadr, the son of a former Shia religious leader, has been calling his supporters to join an armed wing and his followers have been making threatening noises towards the Americans.

They recently warned the US occupation forces of trouble if they did not withdraw from the working-class Shia neighbourhood of Sadr City in Baghdad, named after Mr Sadr's father, after US soldiers pulled down a Shia religious flag.

The Ministry of Defence yesterday named three Royal Military policemen killed in an weekend ambush in Basra as Major Matthew Titchener, Warrant Officer Colin Wall and Corporal Dewi Pritchard.

The MoD insisted it would continue trying to win support from locals by sending troops onto the streets in lightly armed convoys, despite suggestions that the military policemen had been left defenceless in an unarmoured four-wheel drive vehicle.

The international Red Cross said yesterday it was scaling down its Baghdad workforce after receiving warnings that the organisation might be targetted.

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