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Powerful cleric blasts U.S. plan for new Iraqi government

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's most influential cleric strongly criticized on Wednesday an American initiative to create a new Iraqi government as flawed and un-Islamic. His public opposition could potentially derail U.S. plans to quickly hand over power to the Iraqi people.

Through his aides, Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, the primary leader of the nation's majority Shiite, said that Iraqis must directly elect their new interim government in elections planned for next June. The current U.S. plan calls an indirect vote through an assembly representing all of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups.

Sistani also insisted that the new Iraqi government must have a stronger Islamic character than the one currently planned.

"He didn't find anything that assures Islamic identity," said Abdul-Aziz al Hakim, a leading Shiite cleric and politician, in Najaf, Sistani's home. "There should have been a stipulation which prevents legislating anything that contradicts Islam in the new Iraq."

Direct elections would likely mean domination by Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population, which could be resisted by Sunni Muslims who have traditionally controlled Iraq's government and have led recent attacks on U.S. troops.

Also on Wednesday, American soldiers detained a wife and daughter of Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, Saddam Hussein's top deputy and the second most wanted man in Iraq.

Soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division seized the two during a raid Tuesday morning on a house in Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad, said Master Sgt. Robert Cargie, division spokesman. They also seized the son of al Douri's physician, Cargie said.

There were no signs that al Douri was in the vicinity, Cargie said. But the fact that a tip had led the soldiers to people related to him gave some hope that a recent $10 million reward offer will lead to his capture.

Coalition authorities have accused al Douri, the former vice president of Iraq's once all-powerful Revolution Command Council, of being the mastermind behind many of the attacks on American forces in the so-called Sunni Triangle area of Iraq.

The U.S. military last week offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his capture or death. It also targeted one of his abandoned houses with a missile to prevent it from being used as a meeting point for guerrillas. But the 61-year-old ex-deputy commander of Saddam's army remains at large.

Poor intelligence, American officials have lamented, has hampered their ability to fight the guerrillas and suicide bombers who attack U.S. troops almost daily. In November alone, more than five dozen American soldiers have been killed in attacks, more than any other month since President Bush declared major combat over May 1.

The announcement of the arrests came as retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the former head of Iraq's interim administration, criticized the U.S-led coalition for making crucial mistakes after taking over Baghdad in April.

In an interview in London with the British Broadcasting Corp., Garner said the American military should have acted faster to stop the widespread looting and destruction of government buildings. There were too few U.S. troops, he said.

Pentagon officials said Wednesday that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has added 3,000 Marines to the next wave of U.S. troops headed to Iraq early next year. That means the Pentagon plans to have about 108,000 troops in Iraq next May, down from 130,000 now but slightly more than the 105,000 the defense officials originally envisioned.

Garner also criticized his successor, L. Paul Bremer, for disbanding the Iraqi army too quickly. That put a million Iraqis out of work, he said, bringing more hardship to many families. The original plan, he said, was to use the army to help rebuild the country.

He added that the United States should have done a better job of communicating with the Iraqi people and addressing their problems, such as the lack of electricity.

"I'd have brought in huge generators," said Garner, who came to Baghdad on April 21 and was replaced as chief of the interim administration three weeks later. "We should have tried to raise a government a little faster than we did."

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw painted a rosier picture of the new Iraq. Straw, on a previously unannounced two-day visit to the country, met Wednesday with members of the caretaker Iraqi Government Council to discuss, among other things, the hand-over of power to a new transitional government by June 30.

He said later that handing over the country "as quickly as possible to the Iraqi people" would improve security: "Iraq is a better place and will become a far better place as a result of that transition ... and will be infinitely better when we can get on top of the security situation."


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