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Audiotape claiming to be Saddam denies role in cleric's death

BAGHDAD—The killing of a leading Iraqi Shiite cleric in a recent car bomb attack increases the potential for civil war among Iraq's religious and ethnic groups and presents a grave new challenge to the U.S.-led occupation of the country, several Iraqi analysts said Monday.

The killing of another prominent cleric, either Sunni or Shiite, could spark widespread violence, one warned.

While the funeral procession was still under way for slain Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al Hakim's burial in Najaf on Tuesday, several Iraqi groups—some religious and others ad hoc and mysterious—spoke of revenge for his death. In addition, a new audiotape emerged Monday in which a voice claiming to be deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein _whose followers are widely suspected in the Hakim's murder—denied any role in the killing.

"Many of you have heard the snakes hissing, the servants of the invaders, occupiers, and infidels, and how they have managed to accuse the followers of Saddam Hussein for responsibility for the attack on Hakim without any evidence," says the voice, using Saddam's signature flowery rhetoric. "They rushed to accuse before investigating. ... This is not what Saddam attributes to himself."

There was no way to confirm the tape's authenticity. But previous tapes aired on Arab networks claiming to be from Saddam were probably real, U.S. officials have acknowledged.

The attack that killed Hakim Friday was the third and deadliest terrorist incident in Iraq in less than a month, feeding many Iraqis' fears of more destabilizing violence. The blast, which killed as many as 125 people, according to Maj. Rick Hall, a Marine spokesman based in Najaf, followed an Aug. 7 car bombing at the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, which killed 19 people, and a truck bomb 12 days later at the UN headquarters which killed 23, including the United Nations' top envoy.

"We are very worried now about sectarian conflict, and it is possible (Hakim's assassination) is going to lead to that," said Saadoun al Dulame, executive director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, a Baghdad think tank founded after Saddam's ouster

No group has claimed responsibility for the Najaf blast, and Iraqi police there have released few details about their investigation. A senior coalition official told Knight Ridder that four men had been detained, including two Iraqis and two foreigners. But Najaf's governor told Al-Jazeera news Monday that the four detainees were all Iraqi. He was knocking down an unconfirmed wire service report that 19 followers of Islam's strict Wahabi sect had been arrested in connection with the attack.

"I expect the next assassination will be of a Sunni leader, to get what they want, which is chaos in the end," said al Dulame, a liberal scholar who spent 17 years in exile. "We hope it doesn't happen. But if the previous regime is behind this act, then they are going to want to play all of their cards."

Iraq's top Shiite religious body, known as the Hawza, issued a grim warning Sunday that suggested revenge attacks would occur if radical Sunnis were found to have carried out the Najaf bombing.

"The Hawza prays to God that the motive for the crime was not sectarian, otherwise this loathsome attack will have dire consequences," the statement said.

So far, Iraqi Shiite leaders close to Hakim have urged patience and calm among their followers. Eulogizing his brother Sunday, Abdel Aziz al Hakim, who sits on Iraq's Governing Council, urged tens of thousands of mourners to put Hakim's death behind them, and he called for Shiites and Sunnis to unite for Iraq's future.

With several Shiite factions jockeying for power, Hakim's death has fueled speculation among Iraqis that his assassination was carried out by rivals vying for political and religious influence on Iraq's Shiite majority. Some Shiites accuse Moqtada al Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric who opposes U.S. forces and whose base includes the poorest and most volatile Iraqis, of playing a part in the bombing.

Sadr's family condemned the attack and offered condolences in messages printed in several Iraqi newspapers. Sadr's Baghdad office also is planning a memorial service for Hakim, a representative said this week.

Meanwhile, a shadowy new resistance group called "Mohammed's Army" has vowed to carry out revenge attacks in videotapes played on Arab news channels. The group also said it would destroy the embassies of countries that send troops to Iraq. A group calling itself the "Vanguards of Mohammed's Second Army" claimed responsibility for the truck bombing of the UN compound. It is unclear whether the two groups are linked.

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Hakim's assassination has prompted calls from key religious and political figures to turn over control of security matters to Iraqi police and militias.

"If they let the Iraqi people run the security side, none of these attacks would have occurred," said Ali Mehdi al Sadr, a religious scholar and cousin of Moqtada al Sadr. "We could prevent a civil war because we know how to behave with Iraqi people. Our suffering is theirs."

That seemed to happen, at least in a symbolic way, Monday as the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council named a new Cabinet to run government functions and take back some powers from Iraq's U.S. occupiers. The Cabinet has the same religious and ethnic balance as the council.

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Knight Ridder correspondent Ken Dilanian contributed to this story.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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