Najaf bombing kills Shiite leader, followers say
Iraqi officials: At least 125 dead, 142 wounded
NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- A massive car bomb that claimed the lives of one of Shiite Islam's top clerics and 124 others Friday was the deadliest attack in Iraq since the regime of Saddam Hussein fell and the third in a string of terrorist attacks this month.
The latest bomb exploded outside the Imam Ali Mosque as hundreds of people left at the close of prayers. (Gallery: Scenes from the aftermath)
Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, the spiritual leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), was killed, according to Mohsen Hakim, head of the SCIRI office in Tehran, Iran, and spokesman Saed Haitham in Baghdad.
The deadly attack comes after a truck bombing at U.N. headquarters August 19 that killed 23 people and a car bombing at the Jordanian Embassy on August 7 that killed at least 10.
Each bomb has been more powerful than the previous, and all appear to be aimed at destabilizing Iraq.
Officials at one hospital Saturday showed a CNN photographer a list of 124 names of people who had died. The death toll could rise as information is received from several other hospitals in the area.
Safa al Hamidi, director of the Najaf Teaching Hospital, said many of the dead were burned beyond recognition. The hospital was treating at least 142 wounded people, he said Friday.
U.S. forces were providing security at one hospital, trying to maintain order in front, where hundreds of relatives of victims clamored to get information about their loved ones.
Early Saturday morning, people were still digging through the wreckage in front of the mosque looking for bodies. It did not appear that any investigative teams had yet been able to start their work.
Mohsen al-Hakim, the cleric's nephew, said the ayatollah and his entourage left the mosque at the end of noon prayers Friday and were walking toward their cars when two cars beside them exploded. It wasn't clear if the cars that exploded were the ayatollah's cars.
Aides to the ayatollah came to the Najaf Teaching Hospital to search for his body, Hamidi said, but were unable to identify it.
Najaf, about 100 miles [160 kilometers] south of Baghdad, is Shiite Islam's holiest city, and the Imam Ali Mosque is one of the Shiites' most-holy sites. The deadly explosion there was likely to send shock waves throughout the Shiite world. (Full story)
Witnesses in Baghdad said about 300 members of the Badr Corps -- the armed wing of the SCIRI -- left Baghdad wearing military-style uniforms and armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades, saying they were going to Najaf.
Another Shiite leader was killed at the mosque in April. Last week, about a half-mile from the mosque, a bomb exploded at the house of an uncle of the ayatollah.
Al-Hakim lived in exile in Iran for more than 20 years and returned in May after the U.S.-backed coalition expelled Saddam's regime. Many Iraqi politicians considered him a relatively moderate voice in the Shiite community, who had called for unity among Shiite groups. (Profile: Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim)
To honor al-Hakim, the U.S.-appointed Iraq Governing Council announced a three-day mourning period to begin Saturday.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attack.
In the United States, President Bush strongly condemned the bombing, calling it a "vicious act of terrorism" aimed at the ayatollah "and at the hopes of the people of Iraq for freedom, peace, and reconciliation.
"I have instructed American officials in Iraq to work closely with Iraqi security officials and the governing council to determine who committed this terrible attack and bring them to justice," the president said in a statement released from his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Bush offered his condolences to the families of the victims, and said the death of the ayatollah and dozens of others "demonstrates the cruelty and desperation of the enemies of the Iraqi people."
A senior U.S. State Department official called the blast "an attack on the Iraqi people [that] illustrates we are all victims of terrorism."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued similar remarks and said he "is appalled that this incident took place just after Friday prayers in one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites."
CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman in Najaf, producer Ingrid Formanek in Baghdad, senior national security correspondent David Ensor in Washington and journalist Shirzad Bozorgmehr in Tehran contributed to this report.