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Reading Najaf

What the Shia reaction to the bombing means.

2:45 PM, Sep 3, 2003 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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THE HORRENDOUS CRIME carried out at the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, Iraq, last Friday has had immediate repercussions, most of them--in the Western countries as well as the East--unfortunate.

Numerous Westerners theorized that the blast was caused by rivalries among Shias, by the intrigues of Iranian hard-liners or by followers of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Among the most commonly-named suspects was Moqtada Sadr, a young Shia figure who has made a bid for influence over Iraq's Shias, the group which comprises 65 percent of the country's population. More generally, Baathist guerrillas were accused.

Strangely enough, Iraqi Shias and Shia leaders in the United States pointed fingers in a different direction: at the Wahhabi sect, which is the official religion of Iraq's southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia. Wahhabis are known for their genocidal hatred of Shia Muslims.

Only a day had passed when Najaf governor Haidar Mehdi Matar said two "Arab Wahhabis" had been arrested in the case, along with two Iraqis.

The Saudi authorities customarily rejected any claim that their subjects were involved and demanded proof of the charge. Yet according to dissident Saudis, over the Labor Day weekend a brief report in the Saudi media stated that a group of Wahhabi clerics had met with King Fahd, who told them they had to stop preaching jihad against the world. The Wahhabis replied that because of repression against extremists imposed on Saudi territory under American pressure, Wahhabis were heading to Iraq for sanctuary and the opportunity to die as martyrs.

Thus, while Western pundits searched their files for a Shia religious figure on whom to pin the crime, Shia mourners marched in Iraq chanting "La ilaha illallah--Wahhabi adwu allah"--"There is only one God--Wahhabis are God's enemies." In addition, the Iraqi media were filled with articles condemning the Saudis and the Wahhabis in the most extreme terms. For example, "May Allah destroy the House of Saud and their brutal Wahhabism." And at social occasions and other encounters wherever Shias were to be found--including those in the United States, who hail from Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, and the Balkans--the same opinion was heard. On Friday night, I attended a wedding reception for a Shia couple in New Jersey, where even the groom's happy father, a Pakistani Shia, mentioned the pain in the hearts of all Shias at the crime in Najaf.

I also spent Saturday evening at the Imam Ali Center in Queens, New York, where I had the honor of participating in a memorial ceremony for the victims of Najaf. I was asked to speak and led the assemblage in recitation of the first chapter of Koran, known as sura Fatiha. (Recitation of sura Fatiha for the dead is a custom practiced by a billion Muslims around the world, but forbidden by Wahhabis. And in an item that will doubtless astound many people, I and others watched as Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz read sura Fatiha as a memorial to the victims of Saddam's regime, at an Iraqi memorial meeting in Washington on August 1.)

THE CLERICS on the dais in New York included two from the cream of Iraqi-American Shias: Sheikh Fadhel al-Sahlani and Sheikh Kedhim Sadiq Muhammad, as well as Imam Muhammad Riza Hijazi, one of the most thoughtful Islamic clerics in the America.

In conversations before and after the memorial, Saudis and Wahhabis were most often mentioned as responsible for the crime. One thing is for sure: No sane Shia, no matter how twisted by politics or hate, could have set off a bomb at the Imam Ali shrine. This includes Iranian Shias. The main cleric killed in the blast, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakir ul-Hakim, had spent years in Iran and was generally aligned with Tehran. For anybody in the Iranian regime to support this horror would be political suicide.

In my view, the real significance of the Najaf bombing and the death of Ayatollah Bakir ul-Hakim was eloquently stated by Imam Hijazi, who recounted, at the memorial, the words of Ayatollah ul-Hakim in the Friday sermon he had delivered only minutes before his death. Bakir ul-Hakim called for a democratic Iraq, which will respect Islam but in which no religious standard is imposed by the state; full status and protection for religious minorities; and a constitution developed by a popular assembly, elected on the basis of universal suffrage. Hijazi's phrase to sum up: an Islamic democracy.

Another speaker, the fiery Sheikh Khedim, spoke with bitterness and barely-concealed anger. "Iraq is now free," he said. "But this freedom includes the freedom of agents from other Arab governments in the region, working as a Mafia, and who do not want to see Shias leading Iraq, to infiltrate and attack Iraq."