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Blast Kills at Least 100 in Najaf; U.S. Looks for International Support

Aired August 29, 2003 - 19:03   ET


Today's deadly terrorist bombing didn't claim American soldiers or U.N. diplomats this time. Instead the target, a shrine revered by Muslims and the powerful imam who worship there.

We're covering the latest developments from a number of angles tonight.

Ben Wedeman is live in Najaf. Jamie McIntyre is at the Pentagon. John King is with the president in Crawford, Texas.

We begin with Ben Wedeman in Najaf.

Ben, the numbers on casualties have been changing all day. What's the latest estimate on the death toll?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what we -- the last thing we heard was apparently a list was posted at one of the hospitals here, putting a total of 124 people for that hospital alone who have been reported dead.

Now, the numbers are very fluid at moment and it's hard to tell exactly what is going on. But we do know that the death toll is at least 100.

And if you think about it, Anderson, in the month of August alone, we've had three major bombs in Iraq, each one bigger than the one before. And we've had the Jordanian embassy bombing, the United Nations bombing and now one in Najaf, as well, each one of them dealing a body blow to attempts to stabilize this very unstable country.


WEDEMAN (voice-over): Terror strikes Shiite Islam's holiest city. The blast, caught on amateur video, wreaked utter destruction.

It went off just after Friday prayers as hundreds of the faithful were streaming out of the Imam Ali Mosque, the Shiites' most sacred shrine. Among the dead, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the main Shiite factions vying for power in the post-Saddam era.

In Najaf's main hospital, wards crammed with the wounded. Hundreds were injured in the blast, straining medical services to the limit. Many of the injured have been sent to neighboring cities for treatment.

Shrapnel from the bomb ripped into Abdel Azziz' (ph) leg and thigh. He was near Ayatollah Hakim moments before he was killed.

"I saw him come out of the mosque waving to people," Abdel Azziz (ph) recalls. "Then he got into his car and the bomb went off. I was suddenly flying through the air and then woke up here in the hospital."

The death toll is expected to exceed 100. There's no more room in the hospital's morgue. Bodies lined up outside.

Najaf has been ridden with tension in recent months and occasionally struck by violence, as rival clerical factions vie for power.


WEDEMAN: And Anderson, we've been watching this main road going into Najaf this evening and we've been watching truckload after truckload of people coming from the Shiite hinterland around here. They're going to be attending what's probably going to be a massive funeral Tomorrow, at which those tensions are going to be very apparent indeed -- Anderson.

COOPER: They certainly will be. Ben Wedeman, thanks very much in Najaf tonight.

Now surprisingly, some Iraqis are blaming the United States, not for the bombing itself but for the lack of security. There were no coalition troops near the mosque when the bomb exploded.

Now today's attack deals a new blow to U.S. hopes of bringing stability to Iraq and raises new questions about whether the Pentagon strategy to, quote, put an Iraqi face on the occupying force will do much to end the violence.

Senior Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre has more.


JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): U.S. commanders do need more troops in Iraq. They just want them to come from other countries and, even more importantly, they say, from the Iraqis themselves.

LT. GEN. RICARDO SANCHEZ, COMMANDER, U.S. FORCES, IRAQ: What we do need is the linkages to the Iraqi people. We need some Iraqi cooperation. If I put more Americans on the ground those Americans are going to be doing the same things that my 130,000 Americans are doing now.

MCINTYRE: The U.S. hopes Iraqis will see the attack on a moderate cleric as an attack against their future. But Pentagon officials and outside experts agree the violence underscores the need for Iraqis to see the new Iraqi government and the U.S. occupation force as legitimate.

FAWAZ GERGES, SARAH LAWRENCE COLLEGE: We do that by bringing in the international community, including the European Union, the Muslim states, by giving the United Nations sharing power in the reconstruction of Iraq.

MCINTYRE: The U.S. is hopeful that at least two Muslim countries will commit significant troops to Iraq in the coming months, even without a stronger U.N. mandate.

Turkey has signaled its willingness, but any deployment needs approval from Turkey's parliament, which doesn't meet until October and which blocked U.S. access to Turkish bases before the war.

And Pakistan, while not insisting on U.N. approval, does insist on some international endorsement before it sends troops.


MCINTYRE: But administration critics, including many Democrats in Congress, argue that the real problem is the unwillingness of the United States to swallow its pride and share the responsibility for rebuilding Iraq with other countries -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right. Jamie McIntyre, thanks very much.

We're going to have a guest coming up later on in the half hour, Michael Elliott from "TIME" magazine who argues just the exact opposite. Internationalizing the force, he says, this U.N. mandate, is not the answer. We'll talk to him in about 20 minutes.

President Bush is spending the weekend at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. CNN senior White House correspondent John King there is.

John, how concerned is the White House about today's bombing?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, obviously, greatly concerned, Anderson, because of the point just made.

It underscores, No. 1, to the critics that the president does not have enough troops on the ground to provide a good security environment in Iraq.

And No. 2, some critics would say within Iraq and outside this more proof that the administration does not have a political plan to bring all these competing factions together.

Now, the White House says it has no idea as yet as to who is responsible. The early suspicions focus on Ba'ath Party loyalists of Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Bush is at his ranch. This was his last full day in Crawford. He heads back to Washington Tomorrow. At his morning intelligence briefing he was told of the bombing and has been updated throughout the day. A short time ago Mr. Bush issued a statement condemning the bombing as a vicious terrorist attack. He also said he has instructed the United States military to work with any authorities within Iraq to find out who was responsible.

The president specifically noting the death of Ayatollah Hakim, calling him an enemy of Saddam Hussein who had been tortured by the previous regime.

The president went on to say, quote, "His murder today, along with the murder of many innocent men and women gathered for prayer, demonstrates the cruelty and desperation of the enemies of the Iraqi people. The forces of terror must and will be defeated."

So a strong statement from the president there, vowing his resolve will not be shaken by this.

But Anderson, he heads back to Washington Tomorrow a number of skeptical questions away from the Congress. The president needs billions more to keep this operation running. Members of Congress say the president grossly underestimated the security environment and they'll have tough questions -- Anderson.

COOPER: What -- Tell us about the new executive order issued by President Bush today, John.

KING: It's an expansion of one issued three months ago back in May. Remember that deck of cards, 50 something top former officials of the regime from Saddam Hussein to Ba'ath Party officials across. The president previously froze the assets of any of those officials to prevent them from leaving the country with assets, with money, with property.

Today he expanded that authority so that if necessary the administration can also put their immediate family members on that list. No additional assets frozen today, but the administration says it is worried that some family members of the former regime, from Saddam relatives to those of the Ba'ath Party, could be trying to get out of Iraq or could possibly have already escaped Iraq with money.

If they can track that money down this expansion of the order today would give the United States government the authority to seize it.

COOPER: All right. John King in Crawford. Thanks very much, John.


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