Shiite cleric gives new government his support

Friday, June 4, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq's most influential Shiite figure gave tacit endorsement to the U.N.-appointed government Thursday, breaking nearly three months of silence over the country's political future. But the supreme religious leader in neighboring Iran dubbed the body a "lackey" of America. The opposing statements coincided with an eighth straight day of fighting in the holy Shiite city of Kufa between U.S. soldiers and militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. At least six Iraqis were killed and 11 injured, hospital and militia officials said. Three U.S. soldiers were wounded.

Late Thursday, Shiite negotiators who have been trying to mediate an end to the fighting demanded that American troops remain in their positions and stop all raids and arrests in Kufa and Najaf, another holy city.

In return, al-Sadr's militia would continue withdrawing fighters from the two cities, a delegation statement said. The mediators, including politician Ahmad Chalabi, proposed that Shiite monitors ensure compliance with the truce and urged the Najaf provincial governor to put Iraqi police on the streets to maintain order.

There was no comment from U.S. officials. Al-Sadr's spokesman Qais al-Khazali said the withdrawal of militiamen from the streets would be complete within "a day or two."

In a religious edict, or fatwa, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani expressed hope for the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, himself a Shiite. But al-Sistani said the leadership must secure full sovereignty for Iraq, restore security, prepare for elections by Jan. 31 and ease the hardships facing Iraqis.

"It cannot win popular support unless it proves that it is sincerely trying to achieve those goals," al-Sistani said of the new Iraqi leadership.

Al-Sistani criticized the makeup of the Cabinet, saying it excluded large segments of society and political forces. However, his support was critical to public acceptance of the U.N.-appointed government because of al-Sistani's influence over Iraqi Shiites, believed to comprise about 60 percent of the country's 25 million people.

Al-Sistani's objections to U.S. policies in Iraq have derailed at least two U.S. political blueprints for the country's political future and bolstered the Iranian-born cleric's image as the defender of the Shiite community.

In Iran, which has an overwhelming Shiite majority, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described Allawi's government as America's "lackey" and said the United States has failed in bringing reforms to Iraq after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

"Humiliating Iraqi youth, torturing Iraqi men, raping Iraqi women, breaking down the doors of Iraqi homes, and installing a lackey government is the result of ... removing spirituality from politics," Khamenei said in Tehran before tens of thousands who chanted "Death to America."

Nearly half of Allawi's 32 Cabinet ministers, announced Tuesday by U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, are Shiite Muslims. The new leadership takes power from the U.S.-led coalition on June 30 and will remain in office until general elections by Jan. 31.

Khamenei's remarks were expected to have minimal impact among Iraqis, and initial reaction to his criticism was restrained.

"We respect all points of view," Iraqi Vice President Ibrahim al-Jaafari, also a Shiite, told the Arab satellite station Al-Arabiya.

Industry Minister Hajim al-Hassani, a Sunni, told Al-Jazeera television that the government was not concerned about approval "from outside Iraq."

Al-Sistani's edict was issued as the U.N. Security Council deliberates a U.S.-British blueprint for Iraq after the end of the occupation this month. Several key council members, including France and Russia, have called for stronger language affirming Iraq will gain genuine sovereignty despite the continued presence of 138,000 American soldiers.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari met with council members Thursday to press for greater powers for the interim government.

Al-Sistani's demands are likely to find resonance with a broad sector of Iraqis, who are frustrated with the occupation's failure to improve services significantly and restore security. Abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers has deepened Iraqis' suspicions of America's intentions and robbed the occupation of the moral authority the United States and its allies won when they overthrew Saddam.

Al-Sistani's edict was his first political statement since March, when he warned Brahimi against U.N. endorsement of an interim constitution adopted over his objections.

Thursday's pronouncement also returned al-Sistani to the center of Iraqi politics after nearly three months in the shadow of the young militant Shiite cleric al-Sadr, who broadened his base of support by launching a revolt two months ago against the U.S.-led occupation.

The latest clash took place when U.S. forces swept into a neighborhood near the Kufa mosque just after dawn, looking for fighters who had fired mortar shells at a U.S. base from near a girls' school. After driving off al-Sadr's militia, troops found a cache of weapons, including mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles.

Al-Sadr's revolt stoked anti-U.S. sentiment in Iraq, prompting speculation that al-Sistani had lost stature by tolerating the occupation in exchange for political favors for the Shiites.

"I suspect al-Sistani has managed to retain his political popularity despite the Sadrist uprising, and in many quarters, of course, it is now seen as even more important to have an alternative to the hotheaded Muqtada," said Juan Cole, an expert on Iraqi Shiites at the University of Michigan.

Cole, however, warned that al-Sistani could turn against Allawi's government if it does not act quickly to restore security or if signs emerge that the January elections would be delayed.

"The new government will have his blessings as long as it works for security and moves promptly to free elections," he said.

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