Friday, March 31, 2006

Iraq Cleric Will Not Read Bush Letter

An aide to Sistani said the Shiite was unhappy with what he saw as American meddling in Iraqi politics.
By Qassim Abdul-Zahra
Associated Press
March 31, 2006

BAGHDAD - A hand-delivered letter from President Bush to Iraq's supreme Shiite spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, sits unread and untranslated, a key aide to Sistani said yesterday.

The aide - who has never allowed use of his name in news reports, citing Sistani's refusal to make any public statements himself - said Sistani had laid the letter aside and did not ask for a translation because of increasing "unhappiness" over what senior Shiite leaders see as American meddling in Iraqi attempts to form their first permanent post-invasion government.

The aide said the person who delivered the Bush letter - he would not identify the messenger by name or nationality - said it carried Bush's thanks to Sistani for calling for calm among his followers and preventing the outbreak of civil war after a Shiite shrine was bombed late last month.

The messenger also was said to have explained that the letter reinforced the American position that Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite, should not be given a second term. Sistani has not publicly taken sides in the dispute, but rather has called for Shiite unity.

The United States was known to object to a second term for Jaafari but has never said so outright and in public.

But on Saturday, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad carried a similar letter from Bush to a meeting with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of Iraq's largest Shiite political organization, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The Sistani aide said Shiite displeasure with U.S. involvement was so deep that dignitaries in the holy city of Najaf refused to meet Khalilzad on Wednesday during ceremonies commemorating the death of Muhammad. The Afghan-born Khalilzad is a Sunni Muslim.

Elizabeth Colton, the U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, said Khalilzad had not sought any meetings and simply flew over Najaf and the nearby holy city of Karbala to witness the processions of Shiite faithful marking the day.

"The ambassador did a flyover to see people on the streets of Karbala and Najaf," Colton said. "The ambassador did not ask to see anyone and did not go into either city."

The United States is believed to oppose Jaafari because of his close ties and strong backing from radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a thousands-strong heavily armed militia that was responsible for much of the violence that hit the country after the Feb. 22 bombing of an important Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad.

At a news conference yesterday, Jaafari said that he had met with Khalilzad a day earlier and that the U.S. ambassador denied remarks attributed to him about Jaafari's candidacy for a new term.

"I don't care much about these matters," Jaafari said. "I look at the Iraqi people and the democratic mechanisms."

At least 27 people died in violence yesterday, including a 4-year-old girl killed when a car bomb exploded near the Shiite Ali Basha mosque in Baghdad's eastern Kryaat neighborhood. Police Lt. Thaer Mahmoud said at least 10 bystanders were injured.

In Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, gunmen killed eight workers from the city power plant as they left work, Police Lt. Mahanad Khalid said.

The U.S. military yesterday reported two deaths. A soldier assigned to the Ninth Naval Construction Regiment died Tuesday from wounds sustained in fighting in Anbar province. An airman assigned to the 447th Air Expeditionary Group was killed yesterday near Baghdad. A fellow airman was injured when a roadside bomb exploded as they worked to disarm it, the Central Command reported.

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