BAGHDAD (IPS) Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, the leader of the Iran-backed Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SAIRI) died Friday in a car bomb attack, according to his family and followers.

Up to 20 people including the cleric who had returned to his native Iraq after 20 years of exile in neighbouring Iran were killed in a car bomb attack outside a mosque in the Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Najaf just after prayers on Friday, the British news agency Reuters quoted the Shi'ite group as having said.

"It happened shortly after prayers. It was a car bomb and up to 20 people were killed", Adel Abdul Mahdi, an official of the SAIRI told Reuters in Baghdad after receiving reports from Najaf.

Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim leader Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim was killed by the car bomb, his nephew, Hojjatoleslam Mohsen al-Hakim confirmed in Tehran.

The 63 years-old Ayatollah had returned to Iraq last May after two decades of exile in Iran, where he had organised the Badr Brigade, a military force with an estimated 10.000 to 15.000 soldiers trained and equiped by Iran>

The SAIRI is the best-organised and largest Iraqi Shi’ite formation.

Though no group has claimed responsibility for the car-bomb explosion, but many Iranian and Iraqi analysts point their fingers to Hojjatoleslam Moqtada al-Sadr, a young and turbulent cleric struggling for the leadership of the Iraqi Shi’ites.

They also predict the start of violent clashes between the followers of the SAIRI, which is a member of the Iraqi provisory council and Moqtada.

On Sunday, Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Sa’id al- Hakim, a younger brother of Ayatollah Baqer al-Hakim and commander of the SAIRI’s military wing Badr Corps was slightly wounded in a bomb attack at his office in Najaf, killing three security guards.

A U.S. military spokesman confirmed there had been a bomb blast but had no details. "There was an explosion at Najaf near a mosque", he said. "No coalition forces were in the area or on the ground because it is considered to be sacred ground", he said.

Abdul Mahdi said the bomb detonated as worshippers were streaming out of the mosque. ENDS AYATOLLAH HAKIM KILLED 29803