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Officials Deny Assassination Attempt Against Ayatollah al-Sistani - 2004-02-06

Officials close to Iraq's leading Shiite cleric on Friday denied that there was an assassination attempt on Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. There were conflicting reports on Thursday about whether the Ayatollah had been targeted. The U.S. military also says it knows nothing of an attack.

Reports Thursday that Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had survived an assassination attempt have now been called untrue by Iraqi Governing Council members and the cleric's office.

Mowafaq al-Rubaie, a Shiite member of Iraq's Governing Council who is close to the cleric, said on Thursday that Ayatollah al-Sistani had survived an attack by several gunmen in the holy city of Najaf. Mr. al-Rubaie had said Iraqi police were handling the matter. But on Friday, he would only say that Ayatollah al-Sistani was in good health.

During Friday prayers, followers of the cleric were told that reports of an assassination attempt were a lie, and that the Ayatollah was at home and in good spirits.

The initial reports had been received with trepidation by many Iraqis, who were worried about public outcry that might follow an attack on the powerful religious leader.

Ayatollah al-Sistani is the most prominent Shiite cleric in Iraq and is rarely seen in public. He has recently called on the United States to hold direct elections in Iraq, before the scheduled handover of sovereignty to Iraqis in June. At his urging, tens of thousands of his followers took to the streets in recent weeks to press for early elections.

The United States maintains there is not enough time to prepare for elections before the scheduled handover. The coalition wants to hold meetings around the country to select a temporary government.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has dispatched a delegation to Baghdad to look at the election issue. The delegation is expected in Baghdad soon.