Wed, Jul 02, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Shiite cleric's edict may undermine US attempts to rule Iraq

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BAGHDAD, IRAQ

Iraq's leading Shiite cleric has issued a ruling condemning the idea of a constitutional council put together by the US occupation authority, saying Iraqis should elect the drafters of their Constitution.

The cleric's edict, or fatwa, may complicate considerably the plans of the US-led authority here to call a convention to select a commission to draft a new Constitution for Iraq.

The fatwa represents the most significant political pronouncement in the postwar period by the cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who adheres to a moderate strain of Shiite Islam that traditionally separates religion and politics. This contrasts with fundamentalist Iran, where religious leaders wield ultimate political authority.

Sistani, who lives in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, urged Iraqis to push for general elections for a constitutional assembly followed by a referendum on a draft Constitution. While not binding, his words have tremendous force in shaping the thinking and behavior of the country's Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population.

The fatwa said that the selection of a council by the occupying authorities would be "unacceptable."

"There is no guarantee that such a convention will draft a Constitution upholding the Iraqi people's interests and expressing their national identity, founded on Islam and lofty social values," the ruling said, according to a translation by Agence France-Presse.

In another significant political development in Najaf, a coalition spokesman said the interim governor of the city had been removed from office and arrested.

Accusations against the governor include kidnapping, holding hostages and pressuring government employees to commit financial crimes.

The arrest of the governor, Abu Haydar Abdul Mun'im, who had been put in place by a Marine lieutenant colonel in April, comes on the heels of the cancellation of Najaf's first general election about two weeks ago by allied officials. At the time, they asserted that conditions in Najaf were not suitable yet for an election.

On Monday, Charles Heatley, a spokesman for the occupation authority, said that an investigation of Mun'im over the last couple of weeks had been based on a "large amount of evidence from a number of people."

"We've always said we would make mistakes," Heatley said. "Clearly his appointment, given the way he's behaved, was a mistake."

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