NAJAF, IRAQ — NAJAF, Iraq - Amid grief-enraged crowds, police in this holy city arrested several suspects yesterday in the car-bomb attack that killed about 100 people, including a leading Shiite cleric, and shook Iraq to its core.
Officials with the U.S.-led occupation authority said in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, that at least four of the suspects were believed to have ties to al-Qaida. The officials declined to offer details.
If true, it would establish a critical link between the widely reported presence in Iraq of foreign subversives and a specific act of terrorism. Friday's mosque bombing during midday prayers was the third large attack on a civilian, nominally pro-Western target in 22 days - after the Jordanian Embassy and the United Nations headquarters - and threatened to severely undermine U.S. efforts to stabilize postwar Iraq.
In Najaf, tens of thousands of people thronged the streets leading to the gold-domed Imam Ali mosque, the site of Friday's devastating blast and one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, where they beat their chests in a traditional Shiite gesture of self-deprecation. Others held aloft wooden coffins with the remains of dozens of victims who were taken away for burial. Men sobbed openly.
According to Islamic tradition, the dead are to be buried quickly. But the funeral for Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim was delayed because of difficulty in recovering his remains. Some of al-Hakim's followers believed he was still alive because it was difficult to identify his remains. But his aides said they found several of his belongings in the debris.
A funeral is scheduled to begin today, starting with a procession from Baghdad. The burial will be Tuesday in Najaf, 110 miles south of the capital.
Al-Hakim, 64, who returned from decades in exile three months ago, was a relative moderate with a loyal following. He disliked the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq but was willing to cooperate with it out of pragmatism.
Despite immediate fears that the killing would unleash a bloody campaign of retaliation, most communities in Iraq remained relatively quiet. There were large demonstrations in Baghdad and elsewhere, which blamed U.S. authorities for failing to restore law and order. They ended peacefully.
No organization has claimed responsibility for the bombing. There have been violent rivalries within the Shiite community, which is a majority in Iraq. But most Iraqis blamed former officers and agents from the regime of deposed President Saddam Hussein, who are thought to be eager to sow discontent and make the new Iraq ungovernable for the Americans and their supporters. Nearly everyone also held U.S. forces responsible for failing to protect al-Hakim.
Signs of political problems were appearing. Mohammed Bahr Uloum, a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council from Najaf, said he was suspending his membership in protest. News reports quoted him as urging that the occupation authority turn security matters back to Iraqis so they could protect their shrines.
Meanwhile, there was confusion last night over the arrests. Reports put the number of people held from three to nearly 20.
Charles Heatly, a spokesman for the occupation authority in Baghdad, confirmed the detention of four men with what were portrayed as links to al-Qaida.
News agencies quoted Najaf officials as saying that the team consisted of two Saudi nationals and two former Iraqi paramilitaries who confessed to the bombing and revealed plans for additional assassinations, sabotage and violence.
Heatly would not give details about the suspects' detention or the investigation. He said the U.S.-led occupation administration "roundly rejects" the accusation that it has failed to provide security.
U.S. officials have blamed Hussein loyalists and Muslim extremist groups associated with al-Qaida for the attacks in Iraq on U.S. and allied troops and on civilian targets.
Al-Qaida members are Sunni Muslims, like the minority faction that has ruled Iraq. Many Sunnis are among the most resentful toward the U.S. invasion. Al-Qaida's views have been heavily influenced by Wahhabism, a puritanical form of the religion that has frequently been at odds with Shiism.
Meanwhile, a new force of 400 Iraqi police officers is scheduled to begin patrolling the area around the shrine as early as Tuesday, said Maj. Rick Hall of the Marines, while Marines will patrol an outer perimeter. He said the Marines had offered to make such patrols earlier but had been turned down by Najaf's religious leadership, sensitive to a U.S. military presence so close to the cherished shrine.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times staff writers Tracy Wilkinson and Carol J. Williams in Baghdad contributed to this article.