The Forgotten Bombing That Ushered in an Age of Sectarian War

A 2003 explosion in Najaf was to the Middle East’s Sunni-Shiite war what Gavrilo Princip’s bullets were to the First World War. I was there.

The Baghdad funeral procession for Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who was killed in a car bombing in Najaf (David Guttenfelder / AP)

After the bomb blast, the sky rained dried fruit, nuts, and candy.

It was shortly after noon on August 29, 2003, outside the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Iraq. I had just entered a long, narrow street leading to the shrine when the massive explosion shook its walls. I ran toward the smoke in what seemed like dead silence: I had been temporarily deafened by the blast. The alley had turned dark, as if in a sudden solar eclipse. And showering down on me from the swirling black plume were dried apricots, almonds, and brightly colored lozenges. I would learn later that they were from the street vendors’ carts lining the walls of the shrine, blown into the air by the explosion.

It would be many years before I understood that the Najaf bomb was to the Middle East’s sectarian conflict what Gavrilo Princip’s bullets were to the First World War—the single act of violence that would shatter an uneasy balance of ethnic forces, unleashing years of conflict, costing countless lives, and gradually trawling in some of the world’s major powers.

The Imam Ali shrine is the burial place of the man who gave rise to Shiite Islam, and is one of the sect’s holiest sites. The bomb had been hidden in the trunk of a car, close to one of the entrances to the shrine. It was timed to go off just after the Friday midday prayers, when Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, the charismatic cleric groomed by Iran to become Iraq’s first Shiite leader, would emerge from the shrine. Nearly 100 people were killed, most of them from the direct impact of the blast, and others from the collapsing concrete roofs and walls of the shops along the arcade outside the shrine. More than 500 people were injured.

When I made it through the acrid fog, I joined in the jostle of pilgrims scrambling to find and extract bodies from the rubble around the bomb site. There was no organization to our efforts, and even if someone had taken command of the scene, many of us would not have been able to hear any instructions. I had only a high metallic whine sounding inside my head.

As my hearing gradually returned, I became aware that most of the men around me were shouting and sobbing as we hauled chunks of fallen concrete from what had been a shop selling cheap, polyester fabric from long bolts. One of the men was reciting verses from the Koran, his voice rising and falling with the physical strain of moving a piece of the ceiling. Then he looked straight at me, and I suddenly realized that I was myself screaming, continuously and incoherently.

A few moments later, one of the men signaled for silence as he put his ear to a gap in the rubble. He thought he had heard a sound, possibly a survivor. We began to pull away the broken concrete, urgently and, for a time, in complete silence. Then the man who had been chanting Koranic verses began to murmur, “Allahu Akbar … Allahu Akbar … Allahu Akbar.” His voice grew louder and more deliberate as he sensed we were close to finding something, someone. The others took up the chant, and I found myself, an atheist, joining in. “Allahu Akbar … Allahu Akbar Allahu … ”

We were shouting at the tops of our voices when a small hand came into view, sticking out from the ground. First the hand, then an entire arm, then a torso, covered in a child’s checked shirt. But even before we had removed the debris from his face, for it was a boy, I knew—we all knew—it was useless. We fell silent. The boy’s neck was broken, and a jagged gash in his nape revealed broken bones and torn muscle.

Someone put the little body into my arms, and I stepped away from the ruins of the shop, heading toward a fire engine that had, improbably, wedged itself into the narrow alley. I handed the body over to a fireman, neither of us speaking.

I wandered into the shrine, and realized that its thick walls had, remarkably, remained intact. But there were signs of a stampede. Thousands of men’s sandals, which were usually lined up neatly in rows by worshippers before they entered the main building, were now scattered about. An elderly man was being taken away in a stretcher, and some women were huddled together in one corner, their black abayas yellow-gray with dust.

Back outside, I looked for Kate Brooks, the photographer on assignment with me. She had been in another car, and I had forgotten all about her. I now found her, perched precariously on a mound of rubble, her eyes in the viewfinder of her camera as she captured the carnage. She didn’t hear me call out, but I was reassured that Salah, our translator, was close at hand, making sure nobody bumped into her and sent her flying into the jagged concrete.

One man, noting her camera, made it his business to rummage through the rubble for body parts, and then hold them up for Kate’s benefit. Speaking through Salah, she pleaded with him to stop. But he kept rooting around for an arm, or a leg, until a shout went up from another section of the crowd.

“The Sayyid is dead. They killed the Sayyid.”

The blast had claimed its main target, the ayatollah. (“Sayyid” is a honorific denoting direct descent from the Prophet Muhammed, as the Hakim family claims to be.) In the following days, there would be rumors that he had been so close to the blast that most of his body had been vaporized, and that only one hand, bearing his ring, had been recovered.

Later that afternoon, Salah and I made our way to a nearby hospital where many of the dead and injured had been taken. The wards were filled with the families of the victims and onlookers. The staff were trying to create spaces around the beds to allow the doctors to work, but the crush of people was overwhelming.

Salah and I had just about inched our way into one ward when a group of Kalashnikov-wielding militiamen arrived, and set about bringing order to the chaos. They quickly drove most of the crowds out, allowing only the closest family members to remain with the injured. They let me stay, possibly because I was so covered with dust and grime from digging in the rubble that I looked like a patient.

I initially assumed they were members of the Mahdi Army, the militia founded by the firebrand anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. But they displayed more discipline than the notoriously rowdy Sadrists. These men had newer, or at least shinier, Kalashnikov AK-47 rifles than I’d seen in the hands of the Mahdi Army. One even had a bayonet installed, something I’d never seen before in Iraq. Some had walkie-talkie radios, suggesting a level of organizational sophistication. There were likely members of the Badr Brigade, the militia created by the newly assassinated Ayatollah Hakim, and trained and armed by Iran.

The men were young, some of them teenagers. But their leader stood out—a short, stocky, lightly bearded man in his late 50s, in gray trousers and an incongruously white, button-down shirt. He alternated between talking to the staff of the hospital and issuing instructions to his men, all in a soft but firm voice. He asked a nurse if she needed supplies, then ordered one of his men to note down her requirements and make sure she got everything. As soon as he’d finished writing, the young man relayed the contents over his walkie-talkie, presumably to a colleague in a car outside.

The man’s air of authority and solicitousness toward the staff gave the impression of a senior government official, possibly from the health ministry. But there was an accent to his Arabic that, even to my untrained ear, seemed out of place. Perhaps he’s Kurdish, I said to Salah.

No, Salah replied. “He’s Iranian.”

He turned to a nurse who was standing next to us, and she concurred. She had treated many Iranians who came to Najaf on pilgrimage, she said, and there was no mistaking the accent. “They’re Badris,” she added, pointing her chin at the men with the AK-47s.

In a little while, the Iranian grabbed a Thuraya satellite phone from one of his men, and walked out of the ward. It reminded me that I needed to call my editors in New York. Salah and I followed the man into the courtyard with my own Thuraya; satellite phones only work outdoors, with their antennae fully extended. He was already on his phone, now speaking in Farsi. When he heard me speak in English, he stopped mid-sentence, and hurried back in, looking back once in my direction.

Moments later, a few of his men ran out. They pointed their AK-47s at me, forced me to get off the phone, and demanded to know who I was. I showed a Jordanian press badge; I had not yet acquired an Iraqi one from the coalition military office, and even if I had, it might not have been politic to display it to Iranian-backed militants. Salah began to explain, but the men were skeptical that I was a journalist. I was speaking in English and I had a Thuraya; to their mind, I could only be a spy. “CIA?” asked the one closest to me, with a knowing smile, prodding the barrel of his gun into my shoulder. Glad it was not the one with the bayonet, I shook my head and gave him my goofiest, most unthreatening smile.

The men eventually agreed to bring Salah to their leader, while two of them kept me at gunpoint in the yard. In a few minutes, they came back out, and indicated that he had accepted Salah’s explanation. I went back inside, but one of the armed men remained close to me for the rest of the time I was indoors; clearly, he has been instructed to keep an eye on me. Every time I spoke with Salah, he immediately demanded to know what I had said.

The Iranian himself would not speak with me—he waved me away when I approached—but didn’t seem to mind my presence in the emergency ward. Indeed, his interactions with the hospital staff took on an exaggerated air, clearly for my benefit. He spoke louder, sometimes repeating himself, the easier for Salah to translate.

Then a plaintive wail rose from a group of women gathered around a bed in the middle of the ward. One of the injured had just died, a young man in military fatigues. It occurred to me that he might have been one of Hakim’s guards. He has lost most of one leg and had deep wounds in his chest and neck that were full of gauze pads that the surgeon, a heavyset man with an expression of pure exhaustion, had used to try and stop the bleeding. Two of the armed men began to sob, as well. The dead man, I surmised, had been their colleague. As the founder of the Badr Brigade, it made sense that the Ayatollah would have Badris as his personal bodyguard.

The Iranian put a comforting arm on the shoulders of his weeping men, and whispered some words in consolation. They nodded, wiped away their tears, and resumed their stony-faced countenance.

As the dead man’s relatives tried to pull an older woman, perhaps his mother, away from the corpse, the doctor staggered out of the ward. Later, I found him in the courtyard, smoking a cigarette and being consoled by the Iranian. They were about the same age, but the doctor seemed to recognize the Iranian’s authority, and spoke to him as he might to a senior administrator. It can’t have been the first time a patient had died in the doctor’s hands, but between drags of the cigarette, he switched from heaving sobs to expressions of anguished rage.

“Why did they do this?” he demanded of the Iranian. “Why? Why?”

“Don’t you see?” the Iranian said, quietly. “They have declared war on us.”

That exchange remained unprocessed in my mind for several days. Who were the “they” to whom the Iraqi doctor and the Iranian had referred? And who were the “us?”

The most obvious “they”—loyalists of Saddam Hussein who were already leading an insurgency against the U.S.-led coalition—didn’t make sense. At that point, these loyalists were still painting themselves in nationalist, rather than sectarian, colors. Bombing the holiest Shiite shrine in the country would not suit their purpose at all. And although there were obvious similarities to the bombing of the United Nations offices at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, just 10 days before, that attack had targeted a foreign organization, and was plainly designed to kill foreigners. Why would the same group want to kill Iraqis?

The most obvious “us” didn’t make sense either, at the time. I didn’t see how the Iranian militia leader and the Iraqi surgeon could be on the same side. Yes, they were probably both Shiite, but that didn’t automatically make them allies. If they were united by sectarian denomination, they were divided by much more: ethnicity, language, history. Given their age, they had probably also been in opposing armies in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988. There was a pretty good chance the doctor had treated soldiers and civilians injured by the Iranian’s compatriots.

In fact, the “us” were indeed Shiite Muslims—who are the majority in Iran and in southeastern Iraq—and the “they” were Sunnis, who dominate Iraq’s northern and western provinces. But it would be many months before that would become clear to journalists and Western officials and military commanders in Iraq. And it would be several years before I realized, looking back, that the bomb blast at the shrine had announced the opening of hostilities in a Shiite-Sunni conflict across the region.

Most commentators on the Middle East either overlook, or reduce to a footnote, the Najaf bombing in their examination of the sectarian conflict. I’ve been guilty of this myself. I had been present at the shrine when the explosion occurred, and wrote about it for Time magazine, for which I then worked. Over the next five years, I documented the escalation of Shiite-Sunni hostilities in Iraq, and noted the growing role of Iran. As the conflict worsened, and atrocity followed atrocity, the Najaf bombing became, in my mind as well as to most Iraqis, just another hideous episode.

It was not until a decade later, standing at the spot in Sarajevo where the Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie in 1914, setting off the chain of events that erupted into the First World War, that I was jolted by the realization that the Najaf bombing had achieved something quite similar. By killing Hakim and over 100 other Shiite pilgrims, it had set Islam’s two sects on a course to war, one that would first draw in Iran, then the wider Middle East, and eventually the Western powers.

There are straight lines to be drawn from the Najaf bombing to the bloodletting in Syria, where the sectarian conflict is, at of this writing, in its fifth year, and has killed over 250,000 people; to the rise and astonishing success of ISIS; to the 2012 and 2014 Gaza wars between Israel and Hamas, Iran’s proxy; and to the rise of the Shiite rebel Houthi movement in Yemen, another Iranian surrogate, which is currently fighting a war with a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia. It is sobering to recall that the conflict started by Princip’s bullets would rage for three decades, and drag mankind through two world wars. And I fear the furies unleashed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist mastermind who, it would emerge, was responsible for the Najaf bombing, will rampage through the Middle East for years to come.

All this, I can see now. But the anguished doctor and the cool-headed Iranian militia leader already knew, on that blood-stained August afternoon, that the war had begun.