NAJAF, Iraq - A top Shiite leader and more than 90 other people were killed yesterday in a huge car bomb explosion outside a mosque in this Shiite holy city soon after Friday prayers.
The explosion occurred moments after the Shiite leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, had left the site, which houses the tomb of Imam Ali and is considered the holiest shrine in Shiite Islam. Witnesses at the scene indicated the casualty toll could be far larger. But beyond the scale of human losses, the blast was particularly significant because of who its target apparently was.
Al-Hakim was an important Shiite ally of the American occupying force, and his death will likely undermine the coalition's efforts to build stability in Iraq.
The bombing also injured at least 140 people, according to a doctor running the emergency room at the city's teaching hospital.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the bombing.
American officials, speaking about previous violence in Najaf, have said that attacks that harm Shiites are probably the work of other Shiites, while attacks aimed directly at the coalition forces or intended to foment anger toward the coalition are probably the work of Baathists loyal to Saddam Hussein.
Ahmad Chalabi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, subscribed to the second theory yesterday, blaming the attack on remnants of the Hussein regime trying to sow sectarian discord in Iraq. "It's Saddam's people," he said during a televised interview with CNN.
But Najaf, about 110 miles southwest of Baghdad, has been the stage for a violent power struggle between Shiite clerics vying for the leadership of Iraq's Shiite Muslims, who account for 60 percent of the country's population of about 25 million.
The battle pits the older, established ayatollahs against a younger, more militant faction. The older ayatollahs, including al-Hakim, have been counseling patience with the occupation, while the younger faction wants to found an Islamic state.
The militants are suspected of carrying out a series of attacks, including one last weekend, engineered to eliminate or at least unsettle Najaf's religious scholars just as Shiites feel their moment has come.
The bloodshed started in April with the killing of a prominent young cleric in Najaf, Abdel Majid al-Khoei.
A week ago, a bomb exploded outside the house of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Said al-Hakim, another of Iraqi's most important Shiite clerics, killing three guards and injuring 10 other people. Muhammad Said al-Hakim is a relative of Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, who was killed yesterday.
Mohammed Bakir 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 top American civil administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, called the attack "a heinous action" and said it showed "again that the enemies of the new Iraq will stop at nothing.
"Again they have killed innocent Iraqis," he said. "Again they have violated one of Islam's most sacred places."
A spokeswoman for the coalition forces said no coalition troops were in the area at the time of the explosion.
According to shopkeepers near the site of the blast, the bomb was placed in a sport utility vehicle that an attacker drove the wrong way down a one-way street and parked next to the motorcade of al-Hakim. The driver got out of the car and fled into the crowd, shopkeepers said. Moments later, witnesses said, the car blew up, creating a huge crater in the street, breaking the geometric, turquoise-colored tiles that adorned the holy site, collapsing a building in front of the shrine, and shattering windows up to 200 yards away.
Thousands of worshipers fled the site in panic, afraid there was going to be another explosion. People were weeping in the street.
"We didn't know what happened," said Ali al-Azgar Zuen, the owner of a textile shop about 50 yards from the crater. "Everything in the store turned upside down. Pieces of the car and dead bodies hit the front of our building. More than six cars caught on fire. There's a big fire. Some people got caught in that and were burned."
Zuen added: "Everybody in the town is afraid now. It's gotten to be something strange."
Hours after the bombing, residents screamed in the streets in grief and anger. Some attacked reporters, while others continued searching through the debris for more victims.
Men and women pressed their hands and faces against the doors of the mosque, which was closed after the blast. Mosaic tiles were blown off the gold-domed building. The building, which is visited by tens of thousands of pilgrims each year, appeared only slightly damaged.
In violence elsewhere in Iraq yesterday, an American soldier was reported killed and at least five others were wounded in two separate attacks on American troops.
In the deadly attack, one 4th Infantry Division soldier was killed and three others were wounded when their convoy was hit by rocket-propelled grenade and small-arms fire near Suaydat, the American military reported.
Two other American soldiers were injured when their Humvee was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade near a mosque in Fallujah, 30 miles west of Baghdad, said Spec. Margo Doers, a spokeswoman at coalition command in Baghdad.
At least 65 American troops have died from hostile actions since President Bush declared the end to major combat operations in Iraq on May 1.