The leader of Iraq's largest Shiite Muslim group denounced the US-led occupation force as the Americans scrambled to reorganize and revive their chaotic reconstruction effort.
Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, who returned to his homeland this weekend after spending more than two decades in exile in neighboring Iran, demanded that US-led forces pull out and allow the Iraqi people to establish their own government.
"We don't fear these [US and British] forces. This nation wants to preserve its independence and the coalition forces must leave this country," al-Hakim said on Sunday in this predominantly Shiite city despite the presence of a squad of US Marines who were protecting him.
As he spoke, about 4,000 supporters chanted "Yes to Hakim" and "Hakim is our leader."
In Baghdad, a top US occupation official left her post on Sunday and there was other unsettling news for Iraqi rebuilding -- oil production, vital for recovery, may resume more slowly than thought, and it may take two more months to get full electricity back in Baghdad.
The departed official, ex-ambassador Barbara Bodine, was coordinator for central Iraq, including Baghdad, within the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. The office thus far has assembled some 800 specialists from US government agencies and allied governments to organize aid, reconstruction and the establishment of a new government for Iraq.
There has been no explaintion for her swift departure, just two weeks after she chaired a familiarization meeting with top bureaucrats of the former Baghdad city administration.
Al-Hakim told Al-Jazeera television on Sunday that he would not attend meetings to form a new Iraqi government. He said he would send representatives to the meetings but that his specialty is religion, not politics "and therefore I don't think I will attend any of these meetings, whether they are supervised by Iraqis or by others."
Despite his denunciations of the Americans, a US officer said the Marines were protecting al-Hakim, who is leader of the Iran-backed Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq.
In his speech, al-Hakim vowed to defend the rights of all Iraqis and insisted he would not seek a Shiite government.
"Some say Shiites want to seize the power in Iraq but this is not true, although we are the majority. But it was all Iraqis who sacrificed their blood. We don't want a tribal government," he said.
The Shiite sect of Islam, a minority in the Islamic world, represents a 60 percent majority in Iraq. It was persecuted and oppressed under former president Saddam Hussein's Sunni Muslim-dominated regime.
Meanwhile, the new US civilian administrator of Iraq, Paul Bremer, arrived yesterday.
Nearly a week after being tapped by US President George W. Bush to take over the troubled reconstruction of the war-battered nation, Bremer landed in Iraq's second-largest city of Basra.
He arrived with General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and retired US Army General Jay Garner, the man Bremer is replacing.
Myers underscored the US-led coalition's insistence on eradicating all elements of former leader Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and restoring security to the nation.
"There is absolutely no chance that Saddam Hussein and his Baathist party or those who are following Saddam Hussein are ever going to come to power again in Iraq," Myers said.