Attack on key Iraqi cleric reported


BAGHDAD, Iraq - Some aides to Iraq's most prominent religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, were quoted yesterday as saying gunmen tried to kill him, but others denied an assassination attempt.

It was unclear whether an attack took place or was perhaps being covered up. But all accounts said the reclusive al-Sistani, 73, was unharmed. A successful attack on him would likely ignite unprecedented fury among Iraq's 15 million Shiite Muslims, who form 60 percent of Iraq's population, and would raise a major challenge for U.S. authorities here.

Meanwhile, rebels lobbed a mortar shell yesterday at a checkpoint near Baghdad International Airport, killing one U.S. soldier and wounding another, the U.S. command said. The attack outside the airport, which serves as a major American military base, brought to 529 the number of U.S. troops killed since the Iraq war began March 20.

In Najaf, an al-Sistani security chief named Abu Abdullah told The Washington Post that gunmen in the city opened fire on the ayatollah as he moved from his home to his office, about 50 yards away. Reuters news agency and other news organizations quoted aides to al-Sistani as confirming the attack.

But the Associated Press quoted an al-Sistani bodyguard named Abu Mohammed as saying, "There's no truth to this news." He added: "His eminence is in very good health and hasn't been subjected to any assassination attempts. ... He hasn't been out and hasn't changed his place. There has been no gunfire."

An Iraqi official told Newsday he had spoken to an al-Sistani aide who confirmed the attempt on the cleric's life. The official said al-Sistani's aide gave no details: "He had been told by the big man not to say anything."

Some reports said an attack on al-Sistani took place late in the morning, but accounts did not begin to surface until after nightfall in Baghdad, 100 miles away. Given the dangers of nighttime travel in Iraq, journalists were not immediately able to reach Najaf to confirm what had happened there.

Spokesmen for the U.S.-led administration in Iraq as well as Polish and Spanish troops who patrol Najaf said they had no knowledge of an attack.

Al-Sistani is perhaps the most important political figure in Iraq, given his enormous ability to sway opinion among the Shiites. He has lived in isolation at his complex in Najaf for six years.

In recent weeks, he has firmly opposed the U.S. plan for selecting an Iraqi government to take power in June. He says caucuses planned by the U.S. administration will give it too much influence in such a government. He has called for elections instead.

Al-Sistani's objections have led the United Nations to send a team of experts to Iraq, at the request of the Bush administration, to examine whether direct elections are practicable within the timeframe.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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