August 29, 2003 - Posted at: 8:45 a.m. CDT
BAGHDAD, Iraq - A car bomb exploded at the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf during Friday prayers, killing at least four people, including one of Iraq's most important Shiite clerics, a relative said. An Arab TV network said the death toll was much higher.
Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim died in the bombing, his nephew told The Associated Press.
"I called family in Najaf and they confirmed he was dead," said Murthada Saeed al-Hakim, a nephew of the cleric. Earlier, an aide to the ayatollah's brother said he had escaped injury.
Also on Friday, attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades at two U.S. convoys in separate ambushes, killing one American soldier and wounding six, the U.S. military said.
Dozens were injured in the Najaf blast, according to the interim government. The Dubai-based al-Arabiya network reported 17 dead, and unconfirmed reports had higher death tolls.
The ayatollah's death also was confirmed by Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of Iraqi National Congress and a governing Council member, speaking on al-Jazeera, the Arab broadcaster. He quoted the cleric's brother, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim.
Chalabi blamed U.S. forces for not keeping the region secure and said the bombing was the work of Saddam Hussein loyalists who were trying to create sectarian discord in the country.
Ayatollah al-Hakim was the spiritual leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and had divided his time since the end of the war between Tehran and Najaf, the holiest Shiite Muslim city in Iraq.
The Al-Hakims are one of the most influential families in the Iraq's Shiite community. The ayatollah's brother, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, is a member of the Governing Council and was leader of the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, headquartered in Iran before the war.
There has been considerable unrest among the religious factions in Najaf, a holy city 110 miles southwest of Baghdad.
Younger Shiites, many from Baghdad's Sadr City slum, have conducted an ongoing power struggle with the more traditional Shiite Muslims in the city and region, conducting a political battle to grab control from the al-Hakim family.
Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, who is not yet 30, and his young followers have sought tirelessly to replace more traditional factions as the voice of Iraq's Shiite majority, portraying themselves as the ones doing the most to redress decades of suppression by Sunni Muslims under the Saddam's rule.
Al-Sadr draws most of his support from Shiites in Baghdad's Sadr City slum.
The blast occurred a week after a bomb exploded outside the house another of Iraqi's most important Shiite clerics, killing three guards and injuring 10 others, including family members.
The gas cylinder was placed along the outside wall of the home of Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim in Najaf. It exploded just after noon prayers Aug. 24. Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim is related to the ayatollah who was killed Friday.
Iraqi newspapers reported two weeks ago that the Mohammed Saeed al-Hakim had received threats against his life. He also is one of three top Shiite leaders threatened with death by a rival Shiite cleric shortly after Saddam was toppled April 9.
A day after Saddam's ouster, a mob in Najaf hacked to death a Shiite cleric who had returned from exile. Abdul Majid al-Khoei was killed when a meeting called to reconcile rival Shiite groups erupted into a melee.
Shiites make up some 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people.
In the attack on the U.S. troops, insurgents fired three rocket-propelled grenades at a supply convoy on a main road northeast of Baqouba, 40 miles northeast of Baghdad, said Capt. Jay Miller from the 67th Armor Regiment's 3rd Battalion.
The soldiers were also hit by small arms fire. One of the wounded soldiers would have to have a leg amputated, said Capt. David Nelson from the 4th Infantry Division's 2nd Brigade.
The death raised the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq to 282. Of those, 67 have died in combat since May 1, when President Bush declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq.
Another U.S. Army convoy was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade near a mosque in Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, said Spc. Margo Doers, a spokeswoman at coalition command in Baghdad. She said two were wounded in the attack, according to early reports.
In Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, 120 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S.-backed police chief narrowly escaped an assassination attempt Thursday.
Attackers sprayed bullets at police chief Talab Shamel Ahmed's convoy as it traveled on the main highway linking the city to Samara, said Lt. Rosco Woods, a U.S. military police officer supervising the Tikrit police force.
Ahmed escaped unhurt, but his driver was in critical condition in the Tikrit hospital, Woods said. The police chief was clearly targeted in the attack, which left the rear of his car riddled with bullets.
Ahmed is the fourth police chief in Saddam's hometown since U.S. troops occupied it in April. The U.S. military fired the other three for incompetence, Woods said.
There have been several attacks or attempted assassinations of police chiefs working with U.S. military authorities in Iraq. The police chief of Baiji, a town north of Tikrit, was also a target of one such attempt earlier this month, the military said.
At the United Nations, key Security Council members said U.S. talk of relinquishing some military authority in Iraq was a first step in trying to deal with the postwar turmoil. But they said a real solution will require more power for Iraqis and the United Nations.
The Bush administration is sounding out nations on a possible new U.N. resolution that would transform the U.S.-led force in Iraq into a multinational force authorized by the United Nations with an American commander.
The United States is trying to assess whether the proposal -- which was floated last week by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan -- would prompt more countries to send peacekeeping troops to Iraq to relieve some of the 138,000 U.S. troops.
The 4th Infantry Division troops carried out three raids across north central Iraq over a 24-hour period and detained 25 people, two of whom were targeted as Saddam loyalists suspected of planning attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces, said Lt. Col. William MacDonald, spokesman for the 4th Infantry Division.
Also Friday, the United Nations released a list naming 22 victims killed in the Aug. 19 suicide bombing of its Baghdad headquarters.
Sergio Vieira de Mello of Brazil, the secretary-general's special representative to Iraq, died in the attack. The other victims included nine Iraqis, three Americans, two Canadians, two Egyptians and one each from Spain, Iran, Jordan, Scotland, and the Philippines.