'Nineteen arrested' after massacre at mosque

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The streets of Najaf were not a good place to be a foreigner yesterday. Near the site of the huge car bomb that killed at least 75 people, including one of Iraq's most senior Shia clerics, Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakim, a Turkish television crew was confronted by angry young men who waved hand grenades in their faces and told them to leave the area.

Nineteen people were arrested in Najaf yesterday on suspicion of being involved in the bombing. There were allegations that al-Qa'ida was behind the incident but, as with earlier American claims that al-Qa'ida is in Iraq, no one offered evidence.

The shops were boarded up, while angry locals were roaming the streets, looking for someone to blame.

At one point, an American reporter was captured by an enraged crowd who accused him of being behind the bombing and the Iraqi police had to rescue him.

The funeral was delayed. Ayatollah Hakim's body has still not been identified from the heap of mangled flesh that was blown across the street outside the gate of the Shrine of Imam Ali Mosque, one of the holiest places in Shia Islam. They were picking through the remains yesterday, trying to work out who was who among the dead. As many as 120 people may have been killed. What was left of them was "like a meat market", said a doctor.

So powerful was the blast, witness Ali Sa'id al-Jawahiri told us, that pieces of flesh were found on the rooftop of the building opposite the mosque and smeared across the windows. You could hear the explosion 12 miles away, according to people in Najaf. There was one car bomb, according to witnesses. Other explosions after the main blast were from the petrol tanks of nearby cars.

The bomb was set off just after Friday noon prayers, the most important prayers of the week, when the street would have been packed with people leaving the mosque.

Ayatollah Hakim had preached the sermon and was leaving the building. That was routine, Mr Jawahiri said, and as usual a large crowd of the cleric's supporters had gathered around him. That was why the bomb killed so many ­ unlike the bombing of the United Nations HQ, in which a building was collapsed with people inside it, the victims bore the full brunt of the blast directly.

Many people in Najaf accused the US of being behind the bombing, implausible as that is. And these were the Shia, many of whom at first welcomed the Americans as liberators from Saddam Hussein, under whom they were murdered and tortured.

There has been no active Shia resistance ­ so far. But if the bombers' aim was to stir up trouble for the Americans, they succeeded. Even those who did not blame Americans for the bombing were angry with the US. "They did not protect our religious leader," said Karar Hassan, a shopkeeper. There were no American soldiers in Najaf before the bombing ­ the Americans said because they did not want to offend religious sensitivities. Security was controlled by the Iraqi police. "The police are afraid to clear people from in front of the shrine. How can they protect the people?" asked Mr Hassan.

As to who was behind the bombing, there are many possible culprits. "Not all the people loved Ayatollah Hakim," said one local. The cleric had many enemies, both because of his years running an opposition group from Iran ­ the enemy during the 1980s war in which hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died ­ and because he endorsed the US-appointed Iraqi "Governing Council" and sent his brother to be a member of it.

The Americans have so far offered no evidence to back their claims that "hundreds" of foreign Islamic fighters along the lines of al-Qa'ida have crossed into Iraq, though some may indeed have come. A senior Iraqi investigator said that those arrested included two Kuwaitis, six Palestinians, as well as Saudis and Iraqis. He claimed that they all belonged to the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. Meanwhile the US ignores evidence of home-grown resistance groups, other than "Saddam loyalists", that have been behind many of the attacks on US patrols and could have been involved in this bombing.

Najaf was already tense from the power struggle for political leadership of Iraq's Shias ­ and over how far the Shias should resist the occupation. Now, with one of the contenders for that leadership dead, it is a dangerous place for the future of the occupation.