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Top Shi'ite Cleric Rejects UN Calls for International Iraq Conference


A powerful Iraqi Shi'ite cleric has dismissed a United Nations call for an international conference on Iraq. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim says it is unreasonable to discuss issues pertaining to his country in an international forum when they should be discussed at home. Meanwhile, violence continued, with at least 40 people killed and more than 80 wounded in three car bombings in Baghdad. From northern Iraq, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

Speaking in Amman, Jordan, before heading to Washington for a Monday meeting with President Bush, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim said Iraq does not need outside help.

He says Iraq has a political process, and its government is one of the strongest in the region, thanks to its popular base of 12 million voters.

Hakim's comments were in response to a suggestion Thursday from U.N.-Secretary General Kofi Annan that an international peace conference could provide a forum for bringing all of Iraq's feuding factions together.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim is the leader of the powerful Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and his influence is evident in President Bush's invitation for him to visit the White House.

The Supreme Council has close ties to Iran, and its military wing, the Badr Brigades, fought against Saddam Hussein's army in the eight-year war between the two countries in the 1980s. Today, the Badr Brigades is one of the militias blamed for carrying out sectarian attacks against Sunni Arabs.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki are both Shi'ites, but they are not close. When Mr. Maliki was put forth as a candidate for prime minister, Hakim did not support him, and, instead, fielded his own nominee.

The meeting with Hakim is part of increased White House efforts on the diplomatic front to steer Iraq away from escalating violence and all out civil war.

Violence continued unabated Saturday. In addition to the car bombs, authorities say gunmen killed an Interior Ministry official in the Jadida district of Baghdad, and gunmen also opened fire on a funeral procession near the town of Khalis, killing two Shi'ites.

On Thursday, Mr. Bush met with Prime Minister Maliki in Jordan, and next month he will meet with Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi.

Wednesday, a bipartisan U.S. panel is expected to present its recommendations of how to move forward in Iraq, including talks with Iran and Syria.

Speaking of his recent meeting with Mr. Maliki, President Bush said Saturday he was impressed by the Iraqi leader's desire to make difficult choices that would put his country on a better path.

"Our goal in Iraq is to help Prime Minister Maliki build a country that is united, where the rule of law prevails and the rights of minorities are respected," said Mr. Bush.

In his weekly radio address, the president also said he recognizes that the recent violence in Iraq has been "unsettling." But he warned that failure in Iraq would embolden extremists who hate America and derail democracy in the Middle East.

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