- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

NASIRIYAH, Iraq — The leader of Iraq’s largest Shi’ite Muslim group denounced U.S.-led occupation forces yesterday and demanded they pull out and allow the Iraqi people to establish their own government.

Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, who returned to his homeland Saturday after spending more than two decades in exile in neighboring Iran, made the demand in this predominantly Shi’ite city despite the presence of a squad of U.S. Marines who were protecting him.

“We don’t fear these [U.S. and British] forces. This nation wants to preserve its independence, and the coalition forces must leave this country,” Ayatollah al-Hakim said. As he spoke, about 4,000 supporters chanted “Yes to Hakim” and “Hakim is our leader.”

A U.S. officer said the Marines were there to protect Ayatollah al-Hakim, leader of the Iran-backed Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq.

Last month, two prominent Shi’ite clerics were assassinated in the nearby city of Najaf. Their killings were widely perceived as part of an internal dispute among rival Shi’ite factions.

While Ayatollah al-Hakim spoke, some children offered bread or flowers to the Marines.

“We wave to the Americans,” said Hasan Jaberi, a teenager. “But in Arabic, we tell them slaps will come if you don’t leave.”

In his speech, Ayatollah al-Hakim vowed to defend the rights of all Iraqis and insisted he would not seek a Shi’ite government.

“Some say Shi’ites 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 Shi’ite sect of Islam, a minority in the Islamic world, represents a 60 percent majority in Iraq. It was persecuted and oppressed under Saddam’s Sunni Muslim-dominated regime.

Immediately after his return Saturday, Ayatollah al-Hakim told cheering supporters that Iraq should have an Islamic government. But in the same speech he condemned religious extremism and rejected any foreign-installed government.

Yesterday, he said U.S. authorities in Iraq were opposed to an Islamic government.

“The forces here will not bring Islam,” he said.

Washington opposes an Iranian-style theocracy taking control in Iraq, and particularly fears the possibility that a democratic vote might produce a conservative, Islamic-oriented government with close ties to Iran’s anti-American Shi’ite clerics.

Last month, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that a government dominated by hard-line religious clerics “isn’t going to happen.”

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