- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s party yesterday said Shi’ite Muslim religious leaders should stay out of politics, an unprecedented public criticism of the powerful clergy.

“Thrusting the religious establishment into daily political affairs could distance it from its guiding role and disrupt relations between the political forces, which could create an imbalance,” Mr. Allawi’s National Accord Party said in a letter sent to Shi’ite and Kurdish politicians.

“Everyone must agree on the role of the religious leadership in the interim period,” it said. The state-owned al-Sabah newspaper published the letter.

In violence yesterday, a suicide bomber detonated his car beside a U.S. patrol in southwest Baghdad, killing two American soldiers and wounding two others, the Army said. Earlier, the military announced that a U.S. Marine was killed in action on Friday in Iraq’s restive Anbar province.

The deaths came as six members of the U.S. Congress met with representatives of Iraq’s current and future government, on a mission to assess progress toward building a new political and security apparatus that would allow an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

Public criticism of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric, is almost unheard of in the country. It could deepen a political crisis sparked by the failure so far to form a government after the Jan. 30 elections.

The criticism comes as Kurdish and Shi’ite parties, which between them have the two-thirds majority needed to form a government, are struggling to decide on a Cabinet and top jobs.

Ayatollah al-Sistani, who lives in the city of Najaf, has never met Mr. Allawi, a secular Shi’ite. The Iranian-born cleric backed a Shi’ite list that won a majority in parliament.

The ayatollah approved of Mr. Allawi when he became interim prime minister in June, Shi’ite politicians say, but now endorses Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a religious Shi’ite, as the bloc’s candidate for prime minister.

Mr. al-Jaafari yesterday said a government could be formed within days.

Despite assurances by the Shi’ite bloc that it supports multiparty democracy, concern has been growing that Iraq could slide toward Islamic rule and become less tolerant. Ayatollah al-Sistani’s aides have said he does not want an Iranian-style Islamic state.

Last week, Shi’ite Islamist militants attacked a group of male and female university students having a picnic together in Basra, provoking an outcry from secular parties.

Both the Shi’ite and Kurdish blocs have been trying to persuade Mr. Allawi to join a new government, but he has refused, saying new guidelines are needed on how to treat Ba’ath Party members and militias that have sprung up in postwar Iraq.

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