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Iraq's Interim Government Endorsed by Influential Cleric - 2004-06-03

Iraq's newly named interim government has already started to prepare the way for the handover of sovereignty at the end of the month while the U.N. Security Council debates a resolution endorsing that sovereignty. Meanwhile, fighting continues in Najaf and Kufa between U.S. forces and militia loyal to militant Shi'ite cleric Moktada al-Sadr. And, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is trying to find out who allegedly leaked information to Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi that he is accused of passing on to Iran.

The new interim government has received a much-needed endorsement from Iraq's most influential Shi'ite Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The ayatollah says the transitional government is a step in the right direction but lacks electoral legitimacy.

In fact, one of the key tasks of the government, once it assumes sovereignty on July 1, will be to convene a national assembly that will help prepare elections for a more permanent government.

The U.N. special envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, has underlined the seriousness of that task.

"The members of this government should know and not forget that they have not been elected, and this places an extremely heavy burden on them," he said. "This government will therefore have its work cut out for it."

Meanwhile, the interim government's foreign minister is in New York meeting with the U.N. Security Council about its resolution endorsing the handover of sovereignty. A focus of debate has been just how much sovereignty the interim government will have, especially when it comes to the role of the U.S.-led coalition forces that will remain in Iraq.

President Bush says the U.N. resolution will be clear on that point

"The government of Iraq will be fully sovereign," he stated. "And that means that our coalition will be there with the consent of the fully sovereign government and that's what the U.N. resolution is going to say."

Speaking after talks with President Bush, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said that his country's forces will remain in Iraq as part of the coalition for as long as Iraq wants them there.

"We will maintain a presence in Iraq until the job assigned to the individual force elements of the ADF [Australian Defense Forces] have been completed," he said. "This is not the time. It is the worst time imaginable for allies to be showing any weakness in the pursuit of our goals in Iraq."

In other news, a member of the now-dissolved Iraqi Governing Council, Ahmad Chalabi, remains at the center of a political storm amid allegations he passed faulty information to U.S. officials about Iraq's weapons programs. The Pentagon, which had endorsed Mr. Chalabi, has broken its ties with him and cut off the funding it had been giving his organization.

The FBI also has launched an investigation to find who allegedly leaked information that Mr. Chalabi is accused of passing on to Iranian intelligence.

Also, in a surprise announcement, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), George Tenet, has resigned. The CIA has come under heavy criticism over intelligence failures related to Iraq's weapons programs. The Bush administration relied on the information to justify the war in Iraq. Ahmad Chalabi's exiled opposition group was considered a major source of that information.