Iraq enters a tense new phase

US administrator to meet with military chiefs to reassess strategy this week.

The three-day funeral for one of Iraq's most venerated Shiite Muslim clerics comes to a climax today in the holy city of Najaf. But even before the sea of tearful mourners ebbs, Iraqi leaders and US administrators face a critical juncture in their nation-building strategy.

For Iraqis, more than the UN headquarters bombing the previous week, the powerful blast that killed Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim and some 80others last Friday shattered any sense of progress toward stability.

It deepened cleavages between factions of the Muslim Shiite majority as well as the Sunni minority, confirmed a pattern of car bombings, and underscored the challenges still preventing the US from instilling peace.

"Somebody seems to be pushing all the right buttons to wreck the American political strategy," says Tim Ripley at the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies at Britain's Lancaster University. "This doesn't seem like postwar chaos; it's someone reading the agenda [who] wants to derail it."

The chief US administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer, is to meet with US military chiefs in Baghdad this week to reassess American security plans. Options under consideration range from more US troops, a UN deal for more international soldiers, or the creation of Iraqi paramilitary forces. But analysts say it's not clear that either the American and Iraqi publics will wait for these options to come to fruition.

In Najaf, because of the bombing, US Marines are delaying the handover of control of this area of southern Iraq to a Polish-led international force that was supposed to take place tomorrow.

Shiite confusion

Tens of thousands of Shiite mourners, escorted by armed guards, wailed and beat their chests as they marched south from Baghdad Sunday toward Najaf with Hakim's casket. The mourners gave voice to the crosscurrents of strategic options and emotions. Some called for a stronger US presence to go after loyalists of Saddam Hussein's regime - widely believed responsible for Friday's blast - while others claimed that only Mr. Hussein's iron hand could reestablish order.

Also of concern to many Shiites here is the possible role of Sunni militants from outside Iraq (reported to be arriving in increasing numbers) bent on destabilizing the US occupation. The FBI team investigating the UN blast is looking at possible links between the two bombings.

Few Iraqis blamed their fellow Shiites of a rival faction led by Moqtada al-Sadr, which has vociferously opposed the US presence in Iraq, saying that no Shiite would ever bomb the Imam Ali Mosque, the holiest Shiite shrine.

Public confusion over the proper response grew yesterday when the Arabic television station Al Jazeera broadcast an audiotape, purporting to be from Hussein, in which the fugitive dictator denied responsibility for the blast.

"They rushed to accuse before investigating," said the voice on the tape. "They did that to divert attention from the real culprits."

While many Shiite leaders called for calm and unity, they also blamed American forces for not doing enough to secure Iraq and its holy sites - or to let Iraqis secure themselves.

"[The bombers] are dividing all the Iraqi people," said Mohamed Kadhim, a driver who favors a tougher US response, as he sank into the flag-waving mourners. "They want us to kill each other - but we know that. We will catch all the bad people. We ask the Americans to let us have our arms and do all that is good."

Hakim's brother Abdulaziz, a member of the US-appointed Iraq Governing Council, said America should "reconsider its policy," after ignoring Shiite warnings about instability inspired by the former regime.

Cooperative cleric

The death of Hakim was a particular loss for the US. Despite 23 years living in exile in Iran, the black-turbaned cleric had reluctantly agreed to cooperate with American plans for governing Iraq - if only to bring a swifter end to the US occupation.

He also was a tenuous but important link between Washington and Tehran, at a difficult juncture in US-Iran relations.

"Let's agree that we'll not stop, that we'll stay united and follow our way," Mr. Abdulaziz told the crowds at the launch of the funeral procession. "We will follow Hakim's ideas: unity in Iraq between Shiite, Sunnis, and Kurds; or a democratic country without dictatorship; and a country not under occupation."

But there was a less magnanimous view on the street, where fist-waving mourners called for revenge. Among the mosaic of black mourning banners was a red one, that read: "We will not stop until we get revenge."

"It's clearly a wake-up call, and the impact [of the blast] will be severe, but it need not be fatal. It has really sent us back to the drawing board," says Phebe Marr, author of the book, "The Modern History of Iraq," and a former US government analyst. "Iraq could become a failed state if there isn't enough security. And nothing attracts terrorists as much as a failed state. We have to keep our eye on the nation-building project."

But that is proving harder to do, as fears re-emerge of sectarian divisions between rival Shiite groups, and the minority Sunnis, from which Iraq's leadership has been drawn for more than 80 years. Though spared the blood bath that some analysts predicted would follow in the wake of the US invasion last spring, Iraqis are now growing fearful.

"Someone is trying to cause Sunni-Shiite trouble. Otherwise, why would you kill a Muslim sheikh? He is not colonizing us," says Maktouf Aurabi, a Sunni cleric south of Baghdad, referring to the Americans.

"We pray to God to keep things quiet between Sunni and Shiite, and pray to God to find the truth, and know the Sunnis did not do it," Mr. Aurabi says. "The Americans are always in control, but Iraq is a very big country. Saddam himself could not control all of it."

Keeping control is what the game will be about. Hakim and his Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI) has been locked in a struggle for influence with Mr. Sadr's violent "Sadriyyin" faction.

Some argue that Sadr's followers were responsible for a bomb attack on Hakim's uncle at his home just days before the mosque explosion. His group are also widely believed to have been behind the death of another exiled Shiite leader, who was stabbed to death at the Imam Ali mosque shortly after the US invasion.

A turning point?

All the violence has the Shiites in the south - and Iraqis throughout the country - concerned that US forces may be unable to regain control.

"I'm not ready to say this is a turning point, but the whole process of our [US] presence in Iraq has lost its virginity," says Youssef Ibrahim, a former fellow of the Council of Foreign Relations in New York, and now head of the Strategic Energy Investment Group.

"There was a destructive war against Iraq, and now a war against the Americans, and this is not going to go away," Mr. Ibrahim says. "The only way to stop the cycle is to end the American face of occupation. Every day we stay in Iraq, it more and more takes on the flavor of a quagmire."

But while US strategists may be taking new measure after nearly five months of occupation, for Iraqis affected by the violence, their suffering is only an extension of the war. Peace is a word they have yet to experience.

Jabar Kadhim Faisal al-Amiri was a father of six from the holy city of Karbala who had taken his children to pray at the Najaf shrine on Friday. Outside the morgue at the main hospital in Najaf - where the corpses of victims covered the floors, hallways, and parking lot over the weekend, waiting to be identified - his brother tells the story.

Inside the mosque that day, Mr. Amiri had bought sweets for three of the children, but the three others complained that they had none.

"He went for the sweets. He was gone. And then there was the blast," says brother Mohamed Kadhim. Under a bloodied aquamarine sheet in the parking lot, he found his brother - and drew a quick breath in shock, that cut off a wail.

Amiri was one of those now known as the "Friday Martyrs."

"What are his children going to do with their father gone?" Mr. Kadhim asks quietly.

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