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Cleric's office denies assassins targeted him

Iraqis protest in Basra, Iraq, carrying posters of Sistani January 15.
Iraqis protest in Basra, Iraq, carrying posters of Sistani January 15.

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Reports of an assassination attempt on Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, are not true, the cleric's office said Friday.

A close associate said al-Sistani had survived an assassination attempt Thursday when four gunmen opened fire on him and his entourage. Sistani was not injured in the attack and was moved to an undisclosed location in the holy city of Najaf, the associate told CNN.

But Sistani's office in Qom on Friday issued a statement denying the assassination attempt, agreeing with Pentagon sources who told CNN they had not received any report of the incident.

On Thursday, Sistani's associate said the gunmen opened fire with AK-47s around 2 p.m. as Sistani was leaving his house en route to his office in Najaf. Some of Sistani's bodyguards were wounded, but the extent of their injuries was not immediately known, the associate said.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in New York that "any attempt to harm him or other leaders is counterproductive."

"I hope the reports are not correct, because he is a leader of his people who has played an important role in Iraq, and we need input from leaders like him," Annan said.

Sistani, a proponent of direct elections before June, has criticized the Coalition Provisional Authority's caucus-style handover plan.

Under that plan, backed by the Iraq Governing Council, a caucus system would pick a transitional national legislature by May 31. Sovereignty would then be handed over by the end of June. No direct elections would occur before 2005.

Largely as a result of Sistani's complaints, the coalition asked the United Nations to send a team of experts to explore the possibility of direct elections. Sistani has indicated that he would be amenable to going along with U.N. findings.

The coalition has said direct elections are not feasible before the planned June 30 handover.

U.S. military officials also have said they expect more violence as Iraq moves closer to sovereignty.

On Thursday, a U.S. soldier was killed and another was wounded when four mortar shells landed at a logistics base near the Baghdad International Airport.

A total of 529 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq, 369 in hostile action, 160 in non-hostile incidents. Of those killed, 139 died before President Bush declared an end to major military action in Iraq on May 1; 390 have died since then.

Last weekend, two near-simultaneous suicide bombings at the headquarters of two Kurdish political parties in Erbil killed at least 107 people, Iraq Governing Council member Mahmood Ali Uthman told CNN Tuesday.

The Coalition Provisional Authority said Monday that 67 people had died from the blasts in the northern city of Erbil, and 247 were wounded.

Sunday's double-bombing is the deadliest attack since the United States declared the end of major combat in Iraq.

In August, a blast in Najaf killed more than 80 people.

Among the victims was Shiite Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, spiritual leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. He had only been back in Iraq a few months following a 23-year exile in Iraq.

Al-Hakim had not supported the war that ousted Saddam Hussein and he had urged the quick departure of U.S. troops in Iraq. And while the ayatollah called for a democratic Iraq, he said he could not support a secular government because it would not respect Islam.

Other developments

While acknowledging that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, President Bush on Thursday delivered an impassioned defense of his decision to invade the country and topple the regime of Saddam Hussein, saying the world is now safer. "Knowing what I knew then and knowing what I know today, America did the right thing in Iraq," Bush said (Full story)

CIA Director George Tenet on Thursday insisted his agency never said that Iraq was an "imminent threat." But Tenet defended the prewar U.S. intelligence estimate of Iraq, saying the United States needs more time to fully account for Iraq's suspected weapons programs and denying that political pressure bent analysts' conclusions. (Full story)

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