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Shiites testing their strength

From Ben Wedeman

Mourners follow a truck carrying the symbolic casket of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim in Karbala on Monday. The procession is en route from Baghdad to Najaf.
Mourners follow a truck carrying the symbolic casket of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim in Karbala on Monday. The procession is en route from Baghdad to Najaf.

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NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- Tens of thousands of Shiites marched from Baghdad to Najaf to attend the funeral Tuesday for Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, killed along with 82 others in a Friday bombing at Najaf's Imam Ali Mosque.

The march was a show of Shiite strength and a warning that their attempt to emerge from decades of oppression could prove tumultuous.

At a checkpoint outside the city Monday, Iraqi police were on the lookout for trouble, searching cars for explosives and weapons.

With tension running high, police were not taking any chances. Anyone who looked suspicious was arrested.

Several men were detained because they were said to come from a Sunni-dominated part of the country.

Najaf Gov. Haydar Al-Mayali said Friday's massive explosion was caused by two cars packed with more than 700 kilograms (1,543 pounds) of explosives.

The blast violently shattered the relative calm of southern Iraq.

It is widely believed that the attack was either the work of remnants of the old regime or local Sunni extremists or terrorists linked to al Qaeda or a combination of all three.

Early Monday morning gunmen from a Shiite militia in Najaf attacked the home of a former Baath Party member. He was a fellow Shiite who had cooperated with Saddam Hussein's hated regime. The four-hour gunbattle left four dead.

The Friday bombing and the sporadic violence that has followed mark the beginning of a new and volatile phase in post-Saddam Iraq.

The blast ignited fears of inter-Shiite fighting and of clashes between the Shiite majority and the once-dominant Sunni minority that ruled this country since the late 1970's.

Shiite hatred for the old order, however, has not translated into enthusiasm for the U.S.-led occupation.

Coalition forces received a lukewarm welcome from the Shiites who have not forgotten how another U.S.-led coalition had stood by as Saddam's forces brutally crushed their rebellion after the 1991 Gulf War, killing hundreds of thousands in the process.

Nor have Shiites forgotten that it was the Shiites in southern Iraq that suffered the most under international sanctions.

During the years of Baathist oppression, secular political parties among the Shiites were driven deep underground or into exile.

The Saddam regime was far less successful, however, at crushing the centuries-old religious hierarchy in the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. Today, this often divided group of clerics are the Shiite's true power brokers.

A handful of clerical leaders command huge followings among Iraq's Shiites. A fatwa, or religious ruling, from one of those leaders can send tens of thousands of his followers into the streets.

Largely due to their influence, the south was spared the orgy of looting and lawlessness that racked Baghdad and other parts of the country.

"We have our religious leaders," said one man. "They speak for the people. When they tell us to act, we will act."

The United States has never felt at ease dealing with the clerics, due to their support for the establishment of an Islamic state and their close ties to Iran.

From the beginning of the occupation, some clerical leaders denounced the U.S.-led Coalition, but most chose to cooperate.

Al-Hakim initially refused to support the Coalition-appointed Governing Council of Iraq, but then relented, allowing his brother to join.

But other Shiite leaders are highly critical of the council which is seen as an American attempt to put an Iraqi face on the occupation.

"The council was born dead,"said one clerical leader, adding, "It doesn't represent the Iraqi people and only serves the occupation. History will damn all those who take part in it."

Following Friday's bombing, demands have intensified for the Coalition to hand over the reins of power to Iraqis, especially in the area of security.

"The coalition is more concerned with protecting its own forces than it is protecting the people of Iraq," said the nephew of the assassinated ayatollah.

The death of Al-Hakim has left a gaping vacuum. And while no one has yet come forward to take his place, cities like Najaf are bracing for a potentially violent power struggle.

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