Shia leader set to reject plans for new Iraq

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The Independent Online

The Bush administration's plans for formally ending the occupation of Iraq face further complications with signs of hardening opposition from the country's most influential Shia Muslim cleric.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has criticised plans by Washington to transfer political responsibility to Iraqis next year as incomplete and believes they pay too little heed to Islam, a Shia politician said yesterday.

His comments, which come as America is struggling to contain a Sunni-led insurgency, will concern Washington's strategists, including Paul Bremer, the US pro-consul in Iraq.

They know Ayatollah Sistani holds great sway over thepoor urban Shias, who comprise 60 per cent of the 25 million population, and has influence over the 25-seat US-appointed Iraqi governing council. Although the Americans do not want their policy determined by a Shia religious leader, they know that many Shia Iraqis would be unlikely to accept proposals that were rejected by him.

Since the occupation, Ayatollah Sistani has avoided involvement in the political fray. But this frail and reclusive figure, based in a modest office in the holy Shia city of Najaf, has become a powerful presence on the political landscape.

In June, he issued a fatwa that did much to sink a plan by Mr Bremer to appoint the authors of Iraq's new constitution. The ayatollah's edict stated that he would only support a constitution written by Iraqis chosen through a general election. This month, eager to hasten the transfer of political responsibility to Iraqis and quell the worsening violence, the US revised its strategy, producing plans for a 250-member transitional assembly, chosen by provincial caucuses, which would assume sovereignty and then set about drafting a constitution.

The ayatollah's views on this plan, which stopped short of outright rejection, were outlined yesterday by Abdul-Aziz Hakim, a member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, on the same day that Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, was promoting the proposals during a visit to Baghdad. Mr Straw said he was "absolutely sure" that the plans would "assist the security situation". He nearly had a first-hand experience of the violence on Tuesday night, when guerrillas fired three rockets that landed near the complex where he was staying. He said yesterday he had been unaware of the attacks.

Of the future of the 9,800 British troops in southern Iraq, he said: "We will stay as long as the Iraqi government and people wants us to stay and there is a job for us to do."

Mr Hakim said he had discussed the US's proposals with the ayatollah, who told him they were flawed because they did not include a ban on legislating anything that contradicts Islam. This, too, will concern Americans who want a constitution that establishes a secular government. Mr Hakim said: "He expressed concern about real gaps, which must be dealt with or the plan will lack the ability to meet the hopes of the Iraqi people."

His comments come days after Muqtader Sada, a radical anti-American Shia cleric, dismissed the proposed handover of power by 1 July as inadequate in a New York Times interview, and demanded the immediate withdrawal of the allied forces.

Many Shias were wary of the American-led invasion but have since consolidated their gains by securing a majority of seats on the Governing Council and in the interim cabinet. Analysts predict that a Shia will lead the transitional government.

But there are fears, too, that, having largely stayed out of the violent resistance to the US occupation, Shias could become disaffected and take up arms against the Americans.

* The wife and daughter of the vice-chairman of Saddam Hussein's Revolutionary Command Council, suspected of masterminding the anti-American insurgency, were arrested yesterday by US soldiers. The relatives of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, number six on the US list of most-wanted Iraqis, were detained in Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad.