June 3, 2004
NAJAF, Iraq - Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric gave his tacit endorsement to the new interim government Thursday, and urged it to lobby the U.N. Security Council for full sovereignty to erase "all traces" of the American-run occupation.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani did say that the new government, appointed Tuesday by a U.N. envoy, lacks 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," al-Sistani said in a statement released by his office here.
Al-Sistani's opposition to the government would have severely undermined its credibility because of the cleric's influence among Iraq's Shiite majority, believed to comprise about 60 percent of the country's 25 million people.
Meanwhile, the supreme leader of mostly Shiite Iran, condemned the interim government, calling it the United States' "lackey" and saying Washington had failed to bring democracy to Iraq.
"Whether America likes it or not, it has met defeat in Iraq until today," Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a nationally televised address, drawing chants of "Death to America" from an audience of tens of thousands.
He accused the United States of "humiliating Iraqi youth, torturing Iraqi men, raping Iraqi women, breaking down the doors of Iraqi homes, and installing a lackey government." He also called President Bush "a shameless liar."
Khamenei, the leader of hardliners in Iran, holds supreme power - a higher rank than President Mohammad Khatamit, who supports reform in Iran's Islamic regime. Khamenei's remarks contrasted with those of Khatami's government, which welcomed the new Iraqi interim government as a "step forward" toward full Iraqi sovereignty.
"The U.S. president shamelessly claims he shoulders the responsibility to spread democracy ... people of the world see their (American) democracy in Abu Ghraib prison," he said.
Iran holds some influence among Iraq's Shia community, but many Iraqi Shiites resent Iranian interference. Al-Sistani - though Iranian by birth - is far more popular in Iraq than clerics in Iran.
Al-Sistani's objections to U.S. policy in Iraq effectively derailed at least two blueprints put forward by Washington to chart the political future of Iraq.
He had demanded elections to choose the government to take power from the U.S.-run occupation at the end of this month but dropped his insistence after U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi decided that an early ballot was not possible because of poor security.
Iraqis will choose a transitional government by the end of January and elect a new administration after ratification of the new constitution next year.
With the new government set to take over in weeks, al-Sistani said the main tasks were to secure Iraq's sovereignty, relieve the suffering of its people, restore security and prepare for the January elections.
"The new government should get a clear resolution from the U.N. 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," al-Sistani's statement said.
The United States and Britain have submitted a resolution to the Security Council laying down a blueprint for the transfer of sovereignty and seeking international endorsement. It does not spell out the interim government's sovereignty.
Many key council members have said they too want the resolution to fully detail the new government's power.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari was in New York with instructions from the new interim government to discuss the text with the 15 members. He was scheduled to brief the council at an open meeting on Thursday afternoon.
Al-Sistani said the new government cannot win popular support unless it proves "through practical and clear steps" that it is sincerely trying to achieve those goals.