Sun, May 11, 2003 - Page 1 News List

Cleric's return to Iraq complicates US effort

REBUILDING Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim's desire to create a nation `under the banner of Islam' has thrown a wrench into US plans to develop a pluralistic society


The head of Iraq's main Shiite Muslim movement returned home yesterday from 23-years of exile in Iran promising to push for an Islamic state, threatening to complicate US efforts to foster a pluralistic society in the country.

The return of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim came as UN Security Council members studied a US-draft resolution to lift sanctions on Iraq and jostled over the role the world body should play in rebuilding the country.

Hakim, head of the Iran-backed Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), crossed the border near the main southern city of Basra early yesterday to be greeted by thousands of jubilant supporters.

He is expected to tour southern Iraq in the coming days before he returns to his birthplace, the Shiite holy city of Najaf, and was not immediately scheduled to travel to Baghdad.

In an interview with Iranian state radio broadcast yesterday, he said "all of the people of Iraq" can realize their aspirations for "reconstructing and creating a developed and independent country under the banner of Islam."

He also called the presence of coalition forces unjustified and called for their departure.

In a speech Friday, he had said: "Independence is our greatest priority ... Iraqis must be able to decide on their future, something they have not been able to do up to now."

His return is to be closely watched by US officials, who have raised fears about Iranian efforts to push for an Islamic regime in Iraq, but analysts said Hakim will not be seeking center stage for the moment and will keep SAIRI involved in US-brokered efforts to to set up an interim government.

SAIRI is a member of the seven-member council of former opposition groups that are spearheading the process.

On the broader diplomatic front, meanwhile, the US and Britain said Friday they were encouraged by initial reactions from UN Security Council members to a draft resolution to lift sanctions against Iraq and give them control of its economy for 12 months.

The draft would immediately lift sanctions against Iraq and put its oil revenues into a new Iraqi Assistance Fund to be controlled by coalition forces and spent on humanitarian needs, economic reconstruction, "continued disarmament of Iraq" and other purposes.

Anti-war council members are expected to challenge some of the draft's proposals.

The draft says the UN should play a "vital role" in providing humanitarian relief, supporting reconstruction and helping form an interim authority in Iraq, but officials in Washington have said the US administration wants to have the last word on how Iraq is governed.

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