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Powerful Shiite cleric recognizes Iraq's interim government

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's most influential Shiite Muslim cleric offered a tepid endorsement of the country's new U.S.-backed regime Thursday, questioning the legitimacy of the interim government and calling on it to press for an end to the American-led occupation.

"A new government was appointed lacking the legitimacy of elections as well as not properly representing all segments of Iraqi society and its political forces," Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani said in a statement released through his offices in Najaf and London. "Nonetheless, it is hoped that this government will prove its efficiency and integrity and show resolve to carry out the mammoth task that rests on its shoulders."

Sistani had said that only an elected sovereign government could stop the bloodshed in Iraq, and his objections torpedoed earlier U.S. plans to hold regional caucuses to choose a temporary government or name members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to posts in the new interim government.

One of Iraq's main Shiite political parties, the Iranian-backed Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, also said this week that it has reservations about the new government, which it said excluded Islamic leaders.

Sistani's statement included several recommendations for the new government, which formed this week to retake limited control of Iraq after June 30. The first and toughest is to "obtain a clear resolution from the U.N. Security Council restoring sovereignty to the Iraqi people—a full and complete sovereignty in all its political, economic, and military and security forms, and endeavor assiduously to erase all traces of the occupation."

Asked via e-mail about the role of American soldiers in Iraq after June 30, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Sam Hudspath replied, "This decision will be based on conditions, not the calendar. The fact is that for Iraq to prosper politically, economically or even in the security dimension, it's going to require the multinational force that's here to continue to help set the conditions so Iraq can prosper."

Fighting between U.S. forces and the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr erupted again Thursday in the town of Kufa, reportedly killing five Iraqis and wounding 15.

In Baghdad, four mortar rounds hit Thursday near the Italian Embassy, a day before President Bush was scheduled to meet Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a supporter of the U.S. presence in Iraq. It wasn't clear whether the attack was the work of people making a statement about geo-politics, or another random outburst of violence.

The mortar rounds fell short of the embassy at about 4:30 p.m., slamming into a couple of shops and a neighbor's front yard. All the bloodshed was Iraqi: one dead and four injured.

It was just the sort of chaotic scene—shattered glass everywhere and people stepping over an unexploded mortar round—that the American administration said it was trying to fix by forming a new interim government.

The man who was killed, a cabdriver, had stopped by a restaurant to get a bottle of Pepsi. As he walked back to his car, he was hit by one of the mortars. A thick pool of blood and an empty Pepsi bottle were still on the sidewalk hours later.

One of the injured was on his deathbed at a nearby hospital, a witness said.

No one knew the cabdriver's name, only that he was young.

"He looked like he was 15; he was bleeding and I carried him to a car," said Nabil Hamoudi, who works nearby. "He is dying; he is dying right now in the hospital ... How should I feel, seeing a man dying on the ground, with blood all over him? What has happened to my country?"

More than a dozen U.S. soldiers from the 1st Calvary Division from Ft. Hood, Texas, were spread out in the street in front of the embassy, holding machine guns and looking warily at the crowd.

Some of them were trying to interview a witness, but they didn't have a translator. They gave the man a phone number to call if there was another attack, not knowing that he didn't have a telephone.

An Iraqi guard in front of the embassy asked that his picture not be taken, for fear of retribution from his fellow Iraqis for "collaborating" with the Americans.

Giving only his first name, Ahmed, the guard kept his finger on the trigger of his AK-47 and said, "There is no security, no stability in Iraq."

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(Lasseter reports for The Miami Herald.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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