30 August 2003
In Iraq, they go for the jugular: two weeks ago, the UN's top man, yesterday one of the most influential Shia Muslim clerics. As they used to say in the Lebanese war, if enough people want you dead, you'll die.
So who wanted Ayatollah Mohamed Bakr al-Hakim dead? Or, more to the point, who would not care if he died? Well, yes, there's the famous "Saddam remnants" which the al-Hakim family are already blaming for the Najaf massacre. He was tortured by Saddam's men and, after al-Hakim had gone into his Iranian exile, Saddam executed one of his relatives each year in a vain attempt to get him to come back. Then there's the Kuwaitis or the Saudis who certainly don't want his Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to achieve any kind of "Islamic revolution" north of their border.
There are neo-conservatives aplenty in the United States who would never have trusted al-Hakim, despite his connections to the Iraqi Interim Council that the Americans run in Baghdad. Then there's the Shias.
Only a couple of months ago, I remember listening to al-Hakim preaching at Friday prayers, demanding an end to the Anglo-American occupation but speaking of peace and demanding even that women should join the new Iraqi army. "Don't think we all support this man," a worshipper said to me.
Al-Hakim also had a bad reputation for shopping his erstwhile Iraqi colleagues to Iranian intelligence.
Then there's Muqtada Sadr, the young - and much less learned - cleric whose martyred father has given him a cloak of heroism among younger Shias and who has long condemned "collaboration" with the American occupiers of Iraq; less well-known is his own organisation's quiet collaboration with Saddam's regime before the Anglo-American invasion.
Deeper than this singular dispute run the angry rivers of theological debate in the seminaries of Najaf, which never accepted the idea of velayat faqi - theological rule - espoused by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. Al-Hakim had called Khomeini, and his successor Ayatollah Khamanei, the "living Imam". Al-Hakim also compared himself to the martyred imams Ali and Hussein, whose family had also been killed during the first years of Muslim history. This was a trite, even faintly sacrilegious way of garnering support.
The people of Najaf, for the most part, don't believe in "living Imams" of this kind. But in the end, the bloodbath at Najaf - and the murder of Mohamed al-Hakim - will be seen for what it is: yet further proof that the Americans cannot, or will not, control Iraq. General Ricardo Sanchez, the US commander in Iraq, said only 24 hours earlier that he needed no more troops. Clearly, he does if he wishes to stop the appalling violence. For what is happening, in the Sunni heartland around Baghdad and now in the burgeoning Shia nation to the south, is not just the back-draft of an invasion or even a growing guerrilla war against occupation. It is the start of a civil war in Iraq that will consume the entire nation if its new rulers do not abandon their neo-conservative fantasies and implore the world to share the future of the country with them.