NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has survived an assassination bid when gunmen opened fire on his entourage in the sacred streets of Najaf, a security aide says.
The assassination attempt comes days before a team of United Nations electoral experts is due to arrive in the country to assess the feasibility of holding early elections along the lines that Sistani has demanded.
Sistani, revered by Iraq’s Shi’ite community, which makes up about 60 percent of the country’s 25 million population, is rarely seen in public and seldom leaves Najaf, Shi’ism holiest city, about 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad.
“At 10 o’clock (7 a.m. British time) this morning, gunmen opened fire on Ayatollah Sistani as he greeted people in Najaf, but he was not hurt,” the official told Reuters on Thursday on condition of anonymity.
Residents said Sistani was travelling by car from his office to his home and stopped to greet passersby when his entourage was fired upon by at least four gunmen. It was not immediately clear whether any of Sistani’s security team were injured.
An attempt on the 73-year-old cleric’s life is likely to incite fury among Iraq’s long-oppressed Shi’ite community as it seeks greater influence in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, a leading Shi’ite member of the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council, who met with Sistani on Thursday, said the cleric was well following the attack.
“For sure (Sistani) is safe and in good health,” al-Rubaie told reporters in Najaf.
The incident comes amid mounting sectarian and ethnic tension in Iraq. Suicide bomb attacks against Kurdish targets in the northern city of Arbil last Sunday killed more than 100 people, including several top Kurdish leaders.
In recent months, Sistani has spoken out against U.S. proposals for transferring power to an Iraqi government by July 1, saying he wants direct elections to be held rather than the U.S. plan for a system of indirect regional caucuses.
Sistani’s pronouncements carry enormous weight in Iraq and his opposition to the U.S. power transfer plans has thrown into question whether sovereignty will be returned by the deadline.
Sistani seldom makes political statements and is regarded as a low-profile but influential religious leader. Given his huge following, his increasingly politicised role has turned him into possibly the most powerful man in postwar Iraq.
Sistani’s words recently sent thousands of Shi’ites into the streets to protest against the U.S. power transfer plans.
The cleric has received U.N. envoys in the past and kept open a dialogue with the international body, but he has refused to meet U.S. officials, including the U.S.-appointed governor in Iraq, Paul Bremer, for fear of appearing too close to the U.S.-led occupation.
The attempt on Sistani’s life comes six months after the killing of another leading moderate Shi’ite cleric, Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, in front of the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf. More than 80 other people also died in that car bomb attack.
Sistani’s meeting with al-Rubaie, who was exiled in Britain during Saddam’s rule, is part of the cleric’s behind-the-scenes negotiations with Iraq’s interim political leaders in the run-up to the return of sovereignty to Iraqis.