Iraqi Ayatollah Cautiously Acknowledges New Government

Published: June 3, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, June 3 - Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most powerful Shiite leader, acknowledged the new Iraqi government in a cautious statement today in which he said he hoped it would prove its "competence and decency" but noted that the body had not been formed through legitimate elections.

Ayatollah Sistani also urged the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution that granted Iraqis full sovereignty and did not compromise the government's power in political, military and security matters.

In addition, he insisted that the new government "seek the elimination of traces of occupation completely."

In comments on Wednesday, the United Nations special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, said he had "kept in touch with" the ayatollah through the process of selecting the new Iraqi government but said he did not seek his approval for the new government.

One of the country's Shiite parties, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, released a statement on Wednesday in which party leaders expressed "reservations" about the way in which it said the selection process for the new government had ended with the "marginalization and exclusion" of what it called popular Islamic leaders.

The American-led occupation authority plans to transfer sovereignty on June 30 to the Iraqi interim government, which took shape earlier this week. American officials have warned that violence in Iraq may well increase with the approach of the transfer.

Today, fighting erupted in the holy city of Najaf as American soldiers battled militia members loyal to a radical Shiite cleric, news services reported. The clashes occurred as the cleric, Moktada al-Sadr, met with Shiite politicians, including former Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi, about ending violence in the city.

The fighting came in spite of a bilateral cease-fire in Najaf and the nearby holy city of Kufa announced by Mr. Sadr and American authorities a week ago.

Fighting also erupted today in Kufa. Five Iraqis were killed in the clashes there, and 11 were injured, hospital officials said.

Soldiers of the First Armored Division in Kufa have been fighting members of the Mahdi Army, the militia backing Mr. Sadr. Kufa is where Mr. Sadr preaches every Friday, and his men there have refused to honor the cease-fire.

The American military issued a statement saying today's clash began when soldiers approached a school suspected of being the source of mortar attacks. As they drew near the building, insurgents opened fire. Three soldiers were wounded, the military said, and American troops killed "a significant number" of insurgents. The soldiers found a large cache of weapons inside the school, the statement said.

Also today, mortar rounds landed near the Italian embassy in Baghdad. Reuters reported that one Iraqi was killed and several others were wounded, though none of the embassy staff was hurt.

Haitham al-Fadel, a guard at the Italian embassy, told the news service that six people, including three children, were wounded when the rounds fell on a nearby restaurant and a house.

The building was not damaged in the attack, but officials said that most embassy personnel were being transferred to the coalition headquarters, known as the Green Zone.

The embassy, like many other government and diplomatic buildings here, has been targeted by insurgents on other occasions. Last month, mortar shells exploded near the embassy, but the building was not hit. In November, a projectile damaged the building but caused no injuries.

Italy has been a supporter of the American-led campaign in Iraq. The administration of Premier Silvio Berlusconi has deployed about 3,000 personnel to help rebuild the country, though it has not sent combat troops. Today's events came a day after a car bomb in the Adhamiya neighborhood here killed at least 5 Iraqis and wounded 38, according to a hospital director.

Also on Wednesday, a shell fired into an arms depot at an American military base near the northern city of Kirkuk touched off an enormous explosion that sent a black cloud of smoke over the skyline. According to an initial report, no one was injured, a military spokesman said.

The car bombing on Wednesday in the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya, where two bombs went off in close succession, was the third such attack in Baghdad in three days.

Shihab Salim heard the first explosion on Wednesday morning as he was sitting with his children in his home in Adhamiya.