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Top Shiite cleric endorses interim Iraqi government

Fri., June 4, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq – The one man in Iraq with the power to single-handedly scuttle the new U.S.-backed interim government gave it a guarded but crucial endorsement Thursday.

The statement from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani came on a day when the United Nations’ Security Council wrangled over the scope of Iraq’s sovereignty and its control over security forces after June 30.

Meanwhile, in the southern city of Kufa, sporadic fighting continued between U.S. forces and the militia of renegade cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, killing six Iraqis and wounding 11.

In the sun-scorched streets of Baghdad, there was no respite from the violence as mortar rounds rained on a busy thoroughfare near the Italian Embassy. The building was not damaged, but an Iraqi was killed and three others wounded. Italy has been a staunch supporter of the invasion and has contributed about 3,000 troops to the coalition.

Al-Sistani’s statement, coming two days after the naming of the interim government, was a rare bit of good news for the Bush administration and members of the new Iraqi government. In the past, al-Sistani has essentially vetoed American proposals he did not like. The handover to sovereignty was accelerated in line with al-Sistani’s wishes.

Al-Sistani’s fatwas, or edicts, carry unparalleled influence in this nation, where the majority Shitte population looks up to him as the supreme spiritual guide.

In a rare signed statement, the reclusive cleric said the new interim government lacked “legitimacy of elections” and did not represent “in an acceptable manner all segments of Iraqi society and political forces.”

“Nevertheless, it is hoped that this government will prove its efficiency and integrity and show resolve to shoulder the immense tasks now facing it,” he wrote in the statement, issued by his office in Najaf.

Some Iraqi commentators have noted that the new government is heavily skewed toward secular politicians, while religious parties such as the Dawa Islamic Party, which arguably has the broadest support among Shittes, and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which also enjoys wide support, were given token positions on the Cabinet.

Although the Iranian-born al-Sistani shares the same faith as the ayatollahs presiding over Iran’s theocracy, he discourages the clergy’s involvement in politics and advocates representative government.

Rarely speaking in public and filtering his opinion through his aides, al-Sistani straddles a delicate balance between firebrands such as al-Sadr, who want him to declare a jihad against the Americans, and more moderate voices that want to force the foreign forces out of Iraq through negotiations.

In Iran Thursday, the country’s supreme religious leader unleashed an eviscerating attack on the United States and the harm caused by removing religion from government.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking on the 15th anniversary of the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said: “Humiliating youth, torturing Iraqi men, raping Iraqi women, breaking down the doors of homes, and installing a lackey government is the result of . . . removing spirituality from politics.”


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