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Najaf braces for ayatollah's funeral

Saddam tape denies responsibility for bomb

Mourners shout and beat their chests as they escort the symbolic coffin of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim through the Iraqi city of Karbala Monday.
Mourners shout and beat their chests as they escort the symbolic coffin of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim through the Iraqi city of Karbala Monday.

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Thousands of Iraqis march toward Najaf to mourn a leading Shiite cleric.
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NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- U.S. Marines stocked up on medical supplies and braced for trouble as hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiite Muslims converged on Najaf to mourn the prominent cleric killed in a massive car bombing last week.

The bombing killed at least 83 people, including Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, a longtime Iraqi dissident. U.S. troops are keeping responsibility for security in Najaf longer than originally planned because of the attack, U.S. Central Command sources said Monday.

Hundreds of thousands of mourners were expected in the city by early Tuesday as a symbolic funeral procession for al-Hakim made its way toward Najaf from Baghdad.

Lt. Col. Chris Woodbridge, the Marine commander at Najaf, told CNN that helicopters have brought fresh stocks of medical equipment and supplies to Najaf in anticipation of possible violence or even another bombing.

"It's important to remember that this event is a mass expression of grief and mourning for the Shia community here in Iraq and in the world," he said. "We are again coordinating very closely with the Najaf police and the Coalition Provisional Authority to ensure that we're minimizing the risk to that large gathering." (Shiites mourn bomb victims) (Map: Religious and ethnic groups in Iraq)

Woodbridge said the city was calm but "in mourning," with Shiites arriving from across south-central Iraq for the funeral.

"We have continued to provide the level and type of security that the local civil and religious leaders have requested of us," he said. "We have maintained vehicle checkpoints, patrolling in the areas outside of holy sites of Najaf."

Security was tightened after Friday's bombing outside the Imam Ali mosque, the burial site of the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law. (Gallery: Scenes from the aftermath)

An Iraqi police officer told CNN that security forces seized a sport utility vehicle that was "full of bombs" in a Najaf suburb Monday, but no details about the car or the driver were immediately available.

The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force had been scheduled to turn over control of south-central Iraq to a Polish-led multinational division on Wednesday. The transfer ceremony is still scheduled to take place, and the multinational force will take control of security arrangements in areas surrounding Najaf. But the Marines will remain in charge of security in the city until further notice, Central Command sources said. (Fears raised of sectarian violence)

The Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S. administration in Iraq, has arranged with Iraqi officials to have the FBI examine evidence collected at the scene of Friday's bombing, Woodbridge said -- including what was described as computer hardware taken from people detained after the attack.

Purported Saddam tape denies responsibility

FBI agents already are investigating earlier bombings of the Jordanian embassy and the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

Najaf Gov. Haydar Al-Mayali told reporters Sunday that police are holding five suspects in the bombing. Woodbridge said some of them have been turned over to coalition troops for protection out of fears that angry mourners could try to attack the local police station, he said.

Mayali said all of the suspects are Iraqis linked to fugitive Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's deposed regime.

But a new taped statement attributed to Saddam denied responsibility for last week's bombing of the mosque.

"The infidel invaders are accusing, without proof, the followers of Saddam Hussein after the killing of Shiite leader Hakim," said the voice on the tape, which was broadcast Monday by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. "They hastened to accuse us before they had any proof."

The statement insisted that Saddam is still "the leader of the great people of Iraq" and that an investigation into the bombing "will be set up after the invaders are expelled."

"Saddam Hussein is a leader not of the minority but the leader of the great people of Iraq," the tape said. The voice added that Iraqis included Arabs, Kurds, Shiites, Sunnis, Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Central Intelligence Agency is checking the authenticity of the tape, U.S. intelligence officials said, and a determination may take a day or two.

Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Charles Heatley dismissed the tape.

"Every now and then we get these tapes," Heatley said. "People pop up and down and make comments. The fact is that Saddam Hussein is not in control of this country. The very few people who remain loyal to him have lost any support he had among the Iraqi population."

Other developments

• A U.S. soldier in Iraq drowned and two others were injured near Tikrit, U.S. Central Command said Monday. The soldiers were part of the 4th Infantry Division's Task Force Ironhorse. They were on a routine patrol Friday night when their vehicle fell into a canal, a Central Command statement said.

CNN correspondents Ben Wedeman, Barbara Starr, Caroline Faraj and CNN translator Faris Qasira contributed to this report.


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