Powerful Shiite Cleric Backs Constitution

Baghdad, Iraq - The country's most powerful Shiite cleric endorsed the draft constitution Thursday, rejecting opposition voiced by two popular leaders of Iraq's majority sect and underlining a rift also on display in anti-British violence in the southern city of Basra.

Two officials in the Shiite Muslim hierarchy in Najaf said Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called senior aides together and told them to promote a ``yes'' vote among the faithful during the Oct. 15 national referendum on the constitution.

The officials refused to be identified because they are not authorized to speak for al-Sistani, who only issues statements through his office and makes no public appearances.

Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs, who lost power and privilege with the fall of Saddam Hussein in the U.S.-led invasion, are deeply opposed to the constitution. They form the bulk of the country's violent insurgency and have stepped up attacks on Shiites in advance of the vote.

Some saw a Shiite split in play during the violence this week in the predominantly Shiite city of Basra, where British troops clashed with mobs and smashed into a jail while rescuing two soldiers.

Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Affairs, said the escalation of tension in Basra underscored the simmering rift among Shiite factions ahead of the referendum and parliamentary elections in December.

``In large part, this is a reaction to a struggle between hard-liners and more moderate religious elements,'' he said.

Cordesman said the more moderate stance of the largest Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was not accepted in southern Iraq, where ``a relatively hard-line religious takeover in Basra, one linked closer to Iran,'' has created animosity toward the British presence.

Rioting broke out in Basra on Monday after British armored vehicles and troops encircled a jail where two British soldiers were taken after their arrest by Iraqi police. Rioters threw fire bombs and stones at British forces, and TV cameras caught images of soldiers, some with their clothes on fire, jumping from burning vehicles and running from mobs. Five Iraqis reportedly died in the violence, but British soldiers suffered only minor injuries.

Later that night, British armored vehicles broke through exterior walls of the jail compound, smashed cars and demolished buildings in a rescue operation that freed the two soldiers who the British said were then in the hands of Shiite militiamen at a nearby house.

Basra authorities accused the British of violating Iraqi sovereignty, and the provincial governor ordered all Iraqis to stop cooperating with the British.

On Thursday, Gov. Mohammed al-Waili said violators would face unspecified punishment. But later in the day, he said he was in negotiations with the British and the dispute was ``about to be solved and the crisis ended.'' He did not elaborate.

After the violence Monday, Britain pulled its forces off the streets, with patrols only returning to the city late Thursday and then only in armored vehicles.

``We need to understand that this is a warning,'' Cordesman said. ``Over the next few months we're going to see a referendum on a constitution that's going to trigger more debates on Shiite identity ... The idea that the constitution or referendum is going to clear this up is unrealistic.''

Iraqi security forces in the south have largely fallen under the authority of militias - the military wings of Iraq's various Shiite factions. The Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr stands largely in opposition to the Badr Brigade, which owes allegiance to the biggest Shiite party, SCIRI.

SCIRI is beholden to al-Sistani, whose decision to endorse the constitution sets up a political showdown with al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army - both vehement opponents of the charter.

Al-Sadr was joined in his opposition Thursday by Ayatollah Mohammed al-Yaqoubi, who issued a statement from his office in Basra instructing his followers to vote against the constitution.

Iraqi and British officials have sought to play down the difficulties between local authorities in Basra and the 8,500-soldier British force.

``I do not think that this will be an obstacle that cannot be overcome,'' Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said Thursday, a day after meeting with British officials in London.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, in an interview with The Associated Press at the United Nations in New York, said that ``what happened in Basra was a local flare-up.'' He said the incident was not instigated by Iran, as some have speculated.

``The people in the southern provinces have no interest whatsoever to see British forces leave because they're providing security, stability, structure, and relations have always been good ... really between the British forces and the local Iraqis in this area,'' Zebari said.

British Consul-General Stuart Innes said in Basra that the two soldiers whose arrest prompted the conflict had been on a reconnaissance mission aimed at ``maintaining security and to put an end to terrorism in Basra.''

He said the men were disguised as Arabs because that was the only way they could conduct the mission. He said a committee had been set up to address local officials' demands for compensation to victims and an apology.

Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, is 340 miles south of Baghdad. It has largely escaped the violence that has torn the Sunni heartland and taken the lives of 1,907 U.S. military personnel since the war started in March 2003.

Gunmen killed at least 11 Iraqis in five attacks Thursday, police said. Roadside bombers targeted U.S. troops Wednesday night, killing one soldier and wounding six in Baghdad, the military reported.