Tuesday, September 2, 2003

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Governing Council yesterday named a 25-member Cabinet reflecting the country’s ethnic and religious makeup to take charge of government ministries and begin reclaiming some powers from the U.S.-led coalition.

A huge funeral procession for a popular Shi’ite cleric, meanwhile, arrived at the holy city of Najaf, where the ayatollah died in a bomb blast Friday. Arab TV broadcast an audiotape purportedly from Saddam Hussein denying any involvement in the bombing.

The new Cabinet exactly mirrors the Governing Council’s ethnic and religious breakdown with 13 Shi’ites, five Sunni Arabs, five Kurds (also Sunnis), one ethnic Turk and an Assyrian Christian.

The foreign minister will be Hoshyar Zebari, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party. The Oil Ministry will be headed by Ibrahim Muhammad Bahr al-Uloum, the son of Governing Council member Muhammad Bahr al-Uloum, who on Saturday suspended his membership in the interim body because of the lack of security in the country and what he saw as the coalition’s inability to protect prominent figures. The elder Mr. Bahr al-Uloum cited the Najaf bombing.

The Information Ministry, which became famous for its distorted accounts of the war, has been abolished.

The council, formed July 13, had been promising for weeks to name a government. It was not clear what delayed announcing the Cabinet, but several council members had spent much time after their appointment on trips throughout the world seeking recognition for the body as the legitimate representative of the Iraqi people.

U.S. officials have voiced frustration at how long it was taking the Governing Council to get to work and take a greater role in security and gathering intelligence, steps that might block further attacks on American forces and prominent Iraqis.

The council said it had been prepared to announce the government late last week but delayed it because of the bombing in Najaf on Friday.

L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, has said an election for a new government could take place as early as the end of 2004, after the adoption of a new constitution.

The Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite television station and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. both aired yesterday’s audiotape, which carried what seemed to be the voice of Saddam.

The speech employed the deposed leader’s well-known rhetorical flourishes in urging Iraqis not to believe those who blamed him and his followers for the attack on the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf that killed Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and 124 other persons.

“Many of you may have heard the snakes hissing, the servants of the invaders, occupiers, infidels, and how they have managed to accuse the followers of Saddam Hussein of responsibility for the attack on al-Hakim without any evidence,” the tape said. “They rushed to accuse before investigating.”

While denying a role in the Najaf bombing, the voice made no mention of the Jordanian Embassy bombing on Aug. 7 or the U.N. headquarters attack 12 days later, which investigators suspect may have also been carried out by Saddam loyalists.

It was impossible to immediately authenticate the tape. The CIA said it was reviewing the recording.

Ayatollah al-Hakim, killed in Friday’s blast shortly after delivering a sermon calling for Iraqi unity, was a longtime opponent of Saddam and spent more than two decades in exile in Iran, returning in May.

His remains are to be buried in Najaf today. The funeral procession started in Baghdad on Sunday and passed through the second-holiest city of Karbala yesterday.

Masses of Iraqi security forces were present yesterday throughout Najaf, the country’s holiest Shi’ite city, with 400 police preparing to take up positions around the mosque. U.S. forces could not be seen in the city proper and were believed manning checkpoints on roads into Najaf.

Black banners of mourning, some 150 feet long, were draped across the gold-domed mosque. People could be heard crying inside the shrine.

Some Iraqi police officials leading the investigation of the bombing have said they believe al Qaeda-linked Islamic militants were behind the attack, not Saddam loyalists. The FBI said it would help investigate the bombing after receiving a request from local officials.

Iraqi police said the Najaf bomb, which exploded after noon prayers, contained the equivalent of 1,650 pounds of TNT.

They said the 19 suspects arrested so far may have links to al Qaeda.

The death toll stood at 125 persons, with 142 wounded, some seriously, said Maj. Rick Hall, spokesman for the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines.

He said the Marine transfer of patrols in Najaf to an international force led by Poland, scheduled for this week, had been put on hold. The overall hand-over ceremony will still take place tomorrow in Hilla.

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