Leading Shiite cleric says new Iraq must embrace Islamic law

A high-ranking Shiite cleric who helped a coalition of religious parties to apparent victory in Iraq's elections eight days ago said Sunday that the new constitution must embody Islamic law.

We will accept no compromise," said a statement by Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Ishaq al-Fayad, one of the three top Shiite clerics who serve beneath the most senior religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Al-Fayad said separation of religion and state must be "completely rejected."

Vice President Cheney, on Fox News Sunday, cautioned against jumping to conclusions about what kind of document Iraq's Transitional National Assembly will write. He indicated the United States plans a hands-off approach. "We need to step back a bit now," Cheney said. "The bottom line for everybody to remember here is, this is not going to be, you know, an Iraqi version of America. This is going to be Iraqi."

Cheney predicted Iraqis would try to avoid recreating what they've seen next door in Iran: "a religious theocracy that has been a dismal failure."

Ballot counting is expected to take several more days. Partial tallies show a coalition of Sistani-backed political parties will be the largest bloc and could capture a majority in Iraq's new assembly. The 275-member assembly is to appoint a temporary government and write a constitution.

Leaders of the coalition stressed during the campaign that the Shiites would seek a broad-based government including members of the rival Sunni Muslim sect that ruled under Saddam Hussein. Despite Shiite assurances, fear of an Iranian-style theocracy has been a factor driving the insurgency by Arab Sunnis.

Sixty percent of Iraq's 26 million people are Shiites. Many Arab Sunnis, 20% of the population, boycotted the vote. Kurds, who are mostly Sunni, represent nearly 20% but were enthusiastic about voting.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political group, said it will play no role in the new government or assembly but said Saturday that it still plans to help draft the constitution. Also Sunday:

• Insurgents attacked a police station south of Baghdad under cover of darkness, killing 22 Iraqi police officers and soldiers. Fourteen attackers also died.

• The main group monitoring the election in Iraq said its observers had found irregularities, including voter intimidation in some districts. Overall, it said, the election was well run. The group did not rule on whether the vote was fair.

• Four Egyptian telephone workers were abducted. Also, a statement on the Web signed by the Jihad Organization said an Italian journalist seized last week in Baghdad was facing possible execution.

• The U.S. military said one soldier was killed and two seriously injured Sunday by a roadside bomb just north of Baghdad. It also reported that a Marine was killed Saturday in fighting south of Baghdad. No details of either incident were released.

• The interim Iraqi government said it had arrested a Saddam-era general, Khamis Masin Farhan Ugaydi, 51, on Dec. 20 in the oil refinery town of Beiji, an insurgent stronghold. He was helping finance insurgent attacks, a government statement said.

• Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, on CNN's Late Edition, said he doubted Iraq would become an Islamic government. "But look, Iraq is for the Iraqis. It's not for Americans. We're not going to decide what kind of a country they're going to have."

Iraq's ayatollahs have pressed for Islamic law. Early in the U.S. occupation, they demanded that all women be required to wear head coverings. The U.S.-appointed interim government ignored the demand and said women would have equal rights.