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From the November 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 11)

Middle East

Iraq: Death of an Ayatollah

Peter Valenti, World Press Review contributing editor

Turkish women mourn slain Shiite Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim
Turkish women mourn Iraqi Ayotallah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim in a symbolic funeral in Istanbul (Photo: Mustafa Ozer/AFP-Getty Images).
As worshippers emerged from the Imam Ali Mosque in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf on Aug. 29, car bombs exploded, killing more than 100 people. Among them was the probable target, Shiite leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim. Throughout the Arabic-speaking countries of the region, the bombing became the focus of press attention.

Arab writers throughout the region were quick to see the symbolism of Al-Hakim’s assassination in front of the shrine of Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin, Islam’s fourth caliph, assassinated in 661, and an ancestor of Al-Hakim. In a panegyric op-ed in Al-Sharq al-Awsat (Sept. 2) Ammar al-Baghdadi wrote that Al-Hakim is a martyr because despite knowing that he would eventually be murdered, he came back to Iraq to rally his people and work for their betterment. Abd al-Aziz al-Hindal lamented in his Sept. 2 op-ed in Kuwait’s Al-Qabas, “The hand of blasphemy and hypocrisy has reached [even] to one of the holiest of Islamic cities.” He concluded that Al-Hakim, like the caliph Ali, had died a martyr because he “chose the path of jihad in the way of God,” a reference to Al-Hakim’s long struggle against Saddam Hussein’s tyranny.

The lead editorial in Egypt’s Al-Ahram (Sept. 2) saw the bombing as a message: If someone as important as Al-Hakim can be killed, “no one is secure…especially if U.S. and U.K. occupation forces, numbering almost 150,000 troops armed with the most modern weaponry and technology...are not only unable to secure the safety of ordinary Iraqis and their leaders but also protect themselves.”

The lead editorial of Syria’s Al-Baath (Aug. 31) blamed the U.S. occupation for the violence. “As the result of the occupation, Iraq has now become an ‘imminent threat,’ but to all Iraqis…with the number falling victim to the latest acts of terrorism being equivalent to the number of Americans who died since the war began.”

Abd al-Wahhab al-Afandi offered an interesting interpretation in his Sept. 2 op-ed in Al-Quds al-Arabi: Radical Islamists, who came to Iraq to repel foreign occupation, were resorting to violence against Iraqis who welcomed the invaders and religious institutions that were issuing fatwas forbidding the kinds of violent activities that the radicals came to perpetrate.

Writing in Al-Sharq al-Awsat (Sept. 2), Ghassan al-Imam worried that Saddam loyalists and radical Islamists had made a marriage of convenience. He cautioned Sunni Iraqis not to shelter these mainly Sunni loyalists or radicals, saying they have formed a “hellish alliance” that will kill large crowds, such as in the Najaf bombing, or settle old scores, such as in the Aug. 7 bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad.

Fahad al-Fanak noted in his op-ed in Al-Ra’i (Sept. 2) that U.S. officials have not conveyed their dismay about the Najaf attack to the Iraqi people, except through worthless platitudes. He worried that American leaders don’t comprehend the stark reality on the ground and that anyone seen as cooperating with the U.S. occupation is a target.

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