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Shi'ite leader adds to Iraq charter push

Political chief joins top cleric as key supporters

BAGHDAD -- The leader of Iraq's largest Shi'ite political organization joined the country's most revered and powerful Shi'ite cleric yesterday in a strong public push for voter support of a new constitution, three weeks ahead of a national referendum.

In other developments, suicide car bombers killed five Iraqis in and near the capital. And the US military said a soldier had been killed in a bombing Friday night in southeastern Baghdad.

In Basra, the country's southern oil hub and the headquarters for Britain's 8,500-member force, an Iraqi judge said he had renewed homicide arrest warrants for two British soldiers who allegedly killed an Iraqi policeman who had been trying to detain them.

The Britons were rescued from jail last week by British troops using armor to crash through the prison walls. In a sign of Iraqi fury over the British operation, Katyusha rockets were fired at US and British facilities yesterday. No casualties were reported.

The major political development surrounded Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Shi'ite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. His appeal added a key voice of support two days after the Shi'ite grand ayatollah, Ali al-Sistani, also directed followers to back the charter.

''It is our religious duty to say 'yes' to the constitution and to go to the ballot boxes," Hakim told more than 2,000 supporters gathered in Baghdad to mark a 1991 Shi'ite uprising that was brutally crushed by the regime of the former president, Saddam Hussein.

Hakim said that militants and former regime supporters were trying to undermine Iraqis's hopes for security, but that they would fail. His organization has strong ties to Shi'ite Iran and controls a powerful bloc in parliament. Hakim took refuge in Iran during Saddam Hussein's rule.

Sistani, meeting with aides Thursday in the holy city of Najaf, was the first major Shi'ite religious figure to urge voters to back the new basic law, according to two top officials in his entourage. The cleric issues statements only through his office, and he makes no public appearances.

In January, millions of Shi'ites heeded Sistani's call to vote in Iraq's first democratic elections in nearly half a century. The ballot gave the Muslim sect a majority in the new parliament and government.

Shi'ite solidarity is essential for the constitution to pass in the Oct. 15 vote. If two-thirds of voters in any three of Iraq's 18 provinces reject the document, a new government must be formed and the process of writing the constitution must be started over.

The Sunni Arabs, a minority in the country, are dominant in four provinces. They could defeat the new charter should they vote ''no" as a bloc in three of them. Yesterday, Sunni clerics and leaders, gathered at a meeting in Amman, Jordan, to discuss scuttling the charter, expressed optimism that they could do just that.

The three-day meeting, held in Amman for security reasons, ended with a communique urging a ''no" vote if the constitution's ''main points on Iraq's unity and Arab identity are not rectified, as well as articles related to political and racial segregation."

The organizer of the meeting, Sheik Abdul-Latif Himayem, a prominent cleric, said he expected at least 51 percent of Iraq's electorate to vote ''no" in the referendum.

Sunnis have sharply opposed the draft constitution, largely because it would give Shi'ites in the south the right to form a mini-state that Sunnis fear will deprive them of oil wealth and ultimately lead to Iraq's fragmentation.

Elsewhere, seething anger resurfaced in Basra when Katyusha rockets were fired at the US and British consulates but fell harmlessly in a nearby field, police Captain Mushtaq Khazim said.

Three more rockets were fired at the Shatt al-Arab Hotel, headquarters of the British Army, he said. One rocket hit the building without causing casualties. The two other rockets hit nearby homes, wounding a resident, Khazim said.

Also, Judge Raghib al- Mudhafar, chief of the Basra Anti- Terrorism Court, said yesterday that he reissued homicide arrest warrants for the two soldiers.

This rekindled hard feelings despite attempts by Iraqi and British officials to cool tempers.

The British government said the warrants had not been delivered and were not legal.

''Iraqi law is very clear: British personnel are immune from the Iraqi legal process. They remain subject to British law. Even if such a warrant was issued, it would therefore be of no legal effect," Defense Secretary John Reid said.

West of Baghdad, US forces kept up pressure on insurgents near their Ramadi stronghold. Al-Sharqiyah television said the Americans had detained more than 40 men who had served in Hussein's armed forces, in ranks ranging from major to brigadier general. The US military did not report the arrests. Ramadi is 70 miles west of Baghdad, and Hit is an additional 15 miles west.

Lieutenant Yarub al-Duleimi of Ramadi's police said US forces blew up three houses in the region, saying they contained weapons caches. Lieutenant Mohammed Al-Obaidi said a roadside bomb destroyed a US patrol vehicle in the city center at dawn. There was no report of casualties from the Iraqis or the Americans.

In Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, police Captain Arkan Ali said US troops had killed eight Iraqis and wounded six when they opened fire after a roadside bomb hit their patrol, damaging a tank. The US military said it was checking into the report.

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