Key Shiite backs new Iraq team

Iraq's most influential cleric gave conditional approval to the interim government.

Iraq's new transitional government won the tacit approval Thursday of the country's preeminent Shiite cleric, providing a welcome boost of confidence as it prepares to assume sovereignty from the American-led coalition at the end of the month.

How much sovereignty this government will have is still being debated at the United Nations, and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's words are calculated to influence that process.

In his first comments on the creation of the new government, which will steer the turbulent country until national elections are held next January, Ayatollah Sistani admitted that it lacked the "legitimacy of elections" and does 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 carry out the enormous tasks that rest on its shoulders," the cleric said in a hand-written statement released by his office in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad.

Securing Sistani's approval is crucial for the new government as it prepares to take over from the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority on June 30. Although the reclusive cleric rarely is seen in public and since the war has not left his tiny home in an alleyway near the shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf, he is revered by Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population and closely follow his fatwas, or religious decrees.

"As the highest Shiite authority in the land, any approval from Sistani, tacit or vocal, is very important for the new government," says Saad Jawad, professor of politics at Baghdad University.

Key to the transitional government's standing will be the amount of sovereignty it wins in a United Nations Security Council resolution submitted by the US and Britain and presently under debate in New York. France, Russia, and China say the current draft resolution is vague about who controls Iraqi security forces after the June 30 handover.

"The new government should get a clear resolution from the UN Security Council restoring sovereignty to Iraqis - a full and complete sovereignty in all its political, economic, military, and security forms and endeavor to erase all traces of the occupation," Sistani's statement said.

The ayatollah has been the bane of the coalition authorities for the past year, using his great influence to shape the course of Iraq's return to sovereign rule. A US plan drawn up last November to hold caucus-style elections to form a transitional government was scrapped after Sistani voiced objections and instead called for a nationwide poll, a move that generated wide support among Iraq's majority Shiite community. Only a United Nations assessment that elections were not feasible in the time given persuaded Sistani to drop his stance.

The ayatollah also objected earlier this year to key clauses of the draft Transitional Administrative Law under which Iraq will be governed until a permanent constitution is established.

But professor Jawad says that Sistani is likely to give the new government breathing space, content that full elections have been promised by the end of January.

"He wanted elections to take place but he accepted the United Nations view that the country is not ready for them. He will wait until the end of this government's term. I don't think he will try to discredit it," he said.

Little has been heard from Sistani since the beginning of April when the Shiite community was convulsed by an uprising led by the maverick firebrand cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr. The rebellion, which pitted Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army against US troops, spread swiftly throughout Shiite areas from Baghdad's Sadr City slum to Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa in the south.

Despite a negotiated truce announced on May 27, fighting continues fighting between US soldiers and Sadr militiamen in Kufa. Associated Press reports 17 Iraqis and two US soldiers have been killed there in the past week.

Sistani has called for an end to the fighting and blamed US troops for entering the Shiite shrine cities. Analysts say the reason for his middle-of-the-road stance is his fear of seeing the Shiite community divided and fighting among each other.

Nonetheless, his reticence toward Sadr's popular rebellion has done little to dim the respect in which he is held throughout the country.

According to a recent survey by the Baghdad-based Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, 51 percent of those polled "strongly approved" of the ayatollah. In comparison, Sheikh Ghazi al-Yawar, the new president, gained a 7.2 percent approval rating, while Ayad Allawi, the prime minister, won 4.8 percent.

"Sistani is the most influential man in Iraq now," says Saadoun al-Dulame, executive director of the center.

Still, a nod of approval from the ayatollah may be only a temporary respite, given the overwhelming problems facing the new government.

"Sistani's support may give the government some credibility for a week or two, but after that they will be judged on how they deal with Iraq's problems," Mr. Dulame says.

He warns that the transitional government could meet the same fate as its predecessor, the now defunct US-appointed Governing Council which was widely scorned as a toothless puppet of the coalition authorities made up of former exiles and political party leaders.

Certainly, the transitional government has received a lukewarm reception from the Islamic Cleric's Committee, created last year to champion the interests of the Sunni community.

"The composition of the new interim government is no surprise to us. It lacks sovereignty and has limited movements. I hope that they won't do something that might keep the occupation in place longer," Sheikh Hareth al-Dhairi, the head of the Committee, said in a statement.

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