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Last Updated: Monday, 1 September, 2003, 22:06 GMT 23:06 UK
'Saddam' denies killing cleric
Crowds march in Karbala
Hakim's procession drew thousands in Karbala
An audiotape said to be of Saddam Hussein denying involvement in the killing of a senior Iraqi Shia cleric has been broadcast by Arab television channels.

Ayatollah Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim died in a massive car bomb blast in the Shia holy city of Najaf last Friday, along with at least 80 other people.

Ahead of his burial in Najaf on Tuesday, Shia ceremonies have been continuing to bid farewell to the revered late ayatollah, who had a long history of fighting the former Iraqi regime.

Meanwhile, after weeks of wrangling the US-appointed governing council named a cabinet, where Shias will control 13 of the 25 posts.

The cabinet members, who are to act as government ministers in an interim administration until elections are held, represent Iraq's various sectarian communities, but include only one woman.

'Hissing snakes'

"Many of you might have heard the hissing of snakes, the servants of the infidel occupation invaders, who - after the killing of al-Hakim - rushed to accuse, without any evidence, those they called the supporters of Saddam Hussein of the incident," the tape said.

Many of you might have heard the hissing of snakes, the servants of the infidel occupation invaders, who - after the killing of al-Hakim - rushed to accuse, without any evidence, those they called the supporters of Saddam Hussein
Voice on 'Saddam' tape

"Saddam Hussein does not attribute this saying to himself."

US audio analysts have yet to say if the voice on the tape really is that of Saddam Hussein, but the BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner says experts already saying they believe it is genuine.

He says that by denying the responsibility for the bombing, Saddam Hussein - if it is him - has wasted little time in distancing himself from the atrocity.

But among the tens of thousands of Shias who have been joining the funeral procession behind the coffin of the murdered ayatollah, there is little doubt that loyalists of Saddam Hussein were responsible, says the BBC's Valerie Jones.

FUNERAL PROCESSION
Women mourn Ayatollah al-Hakim
Sunday: Kadhimiyah
Monday: Karbala
Tuesday: Najaf

Ayatollah Hakim - the leader of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) - had returned to Iraq after more than two decades in exile, and cautiously supported co-operation with the US occupying forces.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has been called in to help investigate the Najaf attack, which happened just after the late cleric had delivered a sermon for Friday prayers.

The FBI's top agent in Iraq, Thomas Fuentes, said experts would look for links between the Najaf bombing and attacks on the UN headquarters and Jordanian embassy in Baghdad last month.

Mr Fuentes told the French news agency that their work would not, however, start until after Tuesday's burial.

The huge funeral procession for the dead cleric - whose coffin is being taken to holy shrines before burial, as Shia tradition demands - passed through the holy city of Karbala on Monday.

Shia tradition also demands that a senior cleric performs the final burial for another leading cleric, but that given the widespread concern about the lack of security in Najaf, it is not clear whether any of the four prominent Shia authorities in the city will be present for the burial, says the BBC's Sadeq Saba.

Symbolic act

Monday's announcement of the ministerial cabinet - which took weeks to agree because a wide range of political, religious and ethnic groups had to be accommodated - is seen as a significant step forward in setting up a new government.

CABINET MEMBERS
13 - Shias
5 - Sunnis
5 - Kurds
1 - Turkmen
1 - Assyrian Christians

The key position of interior minister with responsibility for security goes to former exile Nouri Badran - a member of the American-sponsored Iraqi National Accord, a group that opposed Saddam Hussein.

The finance ministry goes to a Sunni, Kamel al-Kailani, while a Shia, Ibrahim Muhammad Bahr al-Ulloum, is named finance minister.

The foreign affairs ministry will be headed by a Kurd, Hoshiar al-Zibari, while the only woman in the cabinet, Nisreen Mustafa al-Burwari (also a Kurd) is public works minister.

BBC Middle East analyst Roger Hardy says the naming of a cabinet is largely a symbolic act, and the new ministers will have to convince a sceptical Iraqi public that they constitute an independent body and not a tool of the Americans.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Ben Brown
"Saddam loyalists are still the prime suspects"



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