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Saddam Tape Denies Role in Najaf Bombing

Saddam Tape Denies Role in Najaf Bombing

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- A new audiotape Monday purporting to carry the voice of Saddam Hussein denied involvement in the bombing in Najaf that killed 125 people, including a cherished Shiite leader.

The message was broadcast after the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council named a new Cabinet in a step toward reclaiming some powers from the American occupation administration.

Using Saddam's well-known rhetorical style, the voice urged the Iraqi people not to believe those who blamed the ousted dictator and his followers for Friday's attack on the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf that killed Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim.

"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," said the tape, which was broadcast by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite television station.

"They rushed to accuse before investigating," the voice said.

While he denied any role in the Najaf bombing, he 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 committed by Saddam's followers.

It was impossible to immediately authenticate the tape. Al-Hakim was a longtime opponent of Saddam and spent more than two decades in exile in Iran, returning to Iraq only in May. Crowds of mourners have accused Saddam loyalists of killing the cleric.

Iraqi police officials leading the investigation, however, have said they believe al-Qaida linked Islamic militants were behind the attack. The FBI said Sunday it would help investigate the bombing after receiving a request from local officials.

Iraq's 25-member Governing Council announced a Cabinet, which mirrored exactly the council's ethnic and religious breakdown, with 13 Shiites, five Sunni Arabs, five Kurds (also Sunnis), one ethnic Turk and an Assyrian Christian.

The new Foreign Minister will be Hoshyar Zebari, who was spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party. The key Oil Ministry will be headed by Ibrahim Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, the son of Governing Council member Mohammed 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 Americans' inability to protect prominent figures. The elder Bahr al-Uloum cited the Najaf bombing.

The Information Ministry, which became famous for its distorted accounts of the war, was abolished in the new government list.

The Governing Council, formed July 13, had been promising for weeks to name a government. It was unclear what delayed the announcement, but several members of the council 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 the slowness with which the council has gotten down to work, especially on taking a greater role in Iraqi security that might block continuing attacks on American forces and prominent Iraqis.

The council said it had delayed announcing the government late last week because of the bombing.

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

The decision by Najaf officials to seek FBI assistance represented a reversal from the hands-off approach they had previously insisted U.S. authorities take in the bomb investigation, out of deference to the sanctity of the Imam Ali mosque, which houses the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali.

In Washington, FBI spokesman John Iannarelli said Sunday the bureau will provide forensic analysis of the wreckage. FBI agents are leading the inquiries into both the U.N. and the Jordanian embassy bombings.

Iraqi police said the bomb that exploded after noon prayers Friday at the mosque in Najaf contained the equivalent of 1,650 pounds of TNT. They say the 19 suspects arrested so far may have links to al-Qaida.

The blast stoked anger at the U.S. occupation forces among some Shiites, who say the Americans have not provided security since Saddam's fall in April.

Maj. Rick Hall, spokesman for the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, said the Marine transfer of the south-central territory around Najaf to an international force led by Poland, set for this week, had been put on hold.

The death toll stood at 125, with 142 wounded, some seriously, Hall said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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