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Ken Pollack: Bombing underlines lack of security

CNN analyst Ken Pollack
CNN analyst Ken Pollack

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Contains tomb of Ali, spiritual founder of Shiite Islam.

Holy Shrine of Ali, one of the most revered sites in Shiite world.

Ali is honored as cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad; his assassination and martyrdom key to Shiite worship.

Najaf is center of science, theology and literature, a pilgrimage destination and starting point of pilgrimage to Mecca.

City has been a center of Shiite Muslims' resistance to Sunni Muslim rule in Baghdad.

Worldwide, Shiites aspire to be buried in Najaf, which has one of the largest cemeteries in the world, the City of the Dead.

In past and most recent Iraqi conflicts, Shiites flock to Najaf to bury loved ones.

Located in central Iraq, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, on west ridge of Euphrates River.
Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim
Imam Ali Mosque

(CNN) -- A top Shiite cleric was reportedly among scores killed Friday when a car bomb exploded after prayers at a holy site in the city of Najaf. This follows several attacks on prominent Shiite leaders since the ousting of Saddam Hussein's regime.

CNN analyst Ken Pollack spoke Friday with CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien about the impact the assassination could have on stability and cooperation with U.S. forces in Iraq.

O'BRIEN: Who is first on your list who could have perpetrated this attack?

POLLACK: Honestly, Soledad, given so little time afterward, I think it is very unclear. It seems most likely this is one of another of Shiite groups. There have been a number of Shiite groups within Iraq who have been jostling for control, jostling for power.

We had the assassination of Ayatollah [Abdul Majid] al-Khoei earlier on, right after the war. That was a major attack, it was mounted by the members of another Shiite group led by a very radical cleric. This seems to be part of that effort, but we cannot rule out other groups.

In particular, it's entirely possible that a Sunni group was behind this. And if it was a Sunni group behind this and it comes out that this was a Sunni group that perpetrated this attack, then you could have big problems because it will be seen as a Sunni attack on a major Shiite cleric.

That could galvanize Shiite opinion against the Sunni, you could have some real problems between the majority Shiite population and the minority Sunni population -- if that is the case.

O'BRIEN: If that is true, outside of that, what could the fallout be? You're talking about an attack that took place near a holy site on a holy day. Give me a sense of the overall fallout across the country.

POLLACK: As you're pointing out, Soledad, this was a very important site. The shrine of Imam Ali, the burial place for the Imam Ali, is probably the most important holy site to Shiites in the world. It would be like a major bomb going off outside of St. Peters in Rome or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for Christians. Something along those lines.

It's going to underscore for many Iraqis and in particular for the Shiite the problem of security inside of Iraq. While I don't think there's any Iraqi who is going to blame the U.S. directly, I think it's hard to imagine that any Iraqi would say, well, the Americans set this bomb off.

Certainly you will have a lot of Shiite who will be angry at the U.S. simply for not doing a better job with security, simply for having created a security environment where this kind of attack could happen.

O'BRIEN: If the U.S. loses support, say those are thoughts that come out of the Shiite population and the U.S. starts losing the support of this majority population, what's the fallout from that?

POLLACK: If we start to lose the support of the Shiite, then we've got real problems. Most of the attacks that have been focused on American and British and other coalition troops have come from a small percentage of the Sunni population. As best we can tell, this is all located up in what's called the Sunni triangle up in the northwest of country, and they're mostly Sunni tribesmen and Saddam's old regime followers.

That's a very small amount of the population. While it's obviously problematic, one attack a day or however many a day, this is not going to sink the reconstruction effort. If the Shiite population turns against the U.S. and you see large-scale resistance by the Shiite against the U.S., this reconstruction effort is doomed.

But we ought to be careful about that We're a long way from that point right now. The vast majority of the Shiite seem very committed to the effort. They are angry at the U.S. for not having given them better security, not having restored basic services, but so far, they have remained committed to making the reconstruction effort work. They just want it to work better.

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