Powerful Iraqi ayatollah escapes assassination attempt in street
IRAQ’S most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was described as being in good health yesterday after reports of an assassination attempt on his entourage.
A security official in Ayatollah Sistani’s office said gunmen opened fire on the cleric in the holy city of Najaf.
Residents said the ayatollah was travelling by car from his office to his home in the city and was fired on when his entourage stopped to greet well-wishers.
"At 10 o’clock this morning, gunmen opened fire on Ayatollah Sistani as he greeted people in Najaf, but he was not hurt," the official said.
An attempt on the life of the cleric, 73, would spur anger within Iraq’s long-oppressed Shiite community as it seeks greater influence in a post-Saddam Iraq.
However, confusion arose last night over whether the assassination attempt did indeed take place. The ayatollah’s bodyguards denied the reports, and a US official said it appeared no attempt had been made on his life.
"We have contacted the office of his eminence, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, in Najaf and it transpired that the report is a lie and the whole issue is fabricated and baseless," the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq said.
The incident comes amid mounting sectarian and ethnic tension in Iraq. Suicide bomb attacks against Kurdish targets in the northern city of Irbil on Sunday killed more than 100 people, including several top Kurdish leaders.
In recent weeks, Ayatollah Sistani has spoken out against US proposals for transferring power back to an Iraqi government by 1 July, saying he wants direct elections rather than indirect regional caucuses.
The attempt on Ayatollah Sistani’s life comes six months after the killing of another leading moderate Shiite cleric, Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, in front of the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. More than 80 other people died in that attack.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad Iraqi militants lobbed a mortar bomb yesterday at a checkpoint near Baghdad international airport, killing one US soldier and wounding another.
The attack outside the airport, which serves as a major US military base, brought to 529 the number of US troops killed since the Iraq war began on 20 March.
On Wednesday, US forces captured Majid Ali Abbas al-Dazi, suspected to have co-ordinated a suicide lorry bombing on 24 January in the central town of Samarra, about 70 miles north of Baghdad.
It killed four Iraqi civilians and wounded about 40 people, including seven US soldiers.
The number of daily attacks against coalition forces has climbed slightly. US Brigadier-General Mark Kimmitt said US-led military forces faced an average of 24 daily attacks during the past week. The week before, troops faced an average of 18 attacks daily.
Despite that increase and comments by the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, that the 1 July deadline for Iraqi self-rule might have to be reconsidered, the top US official in Iraq, Paul Bremer, said the US is sticking to its timetable.
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