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'Saddam' Tape Denies Involvement in Najaf Bombing

Another purported Saddam Hussein audiotape surfaced Monday — this one denying involvement in the Friday bomb attack that killed 125, including a prominent Shiite Muslim cleric, outside a shrine in the holy city of Najaf.

Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news channel, broke into regular programming with the tape, which features a man's voice claiming to be that of Saddam and denying any part in the death of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim.

The message was broadcast after the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council named a new Cabinet in a step toward reclaiming some powers from the American occupation administration.

"Maybe many of you have heard the hiss of the snakes, the servants of the occupiers, how they accused us without any evidence of killing al-Hakim," said a voice in Saddam's signature rhetorical style.

Al Jazeera did not play the tape in its entirety, and it was not immediately possible to tell whether the voice was indeed that of the deposed dictator. 

The CIA said it was reviewing the recording to determine its authenticity.

U.S. officials have not said who they suspect in the attack. Iraqi police say the 19 suspects arrested so far may have links to Al Qaeda.  Najaf locals blame Saddam loyalists.

In Najaf, the FBI (search) accepted an invitation from local authorities to help investigate the bombing. U.S. forces in Najaf postponed a planned handover of control of the region to Polish troops.

Local authorities had previously resisted help from the United States in deference to the sanctity of the Imam Ali mosque (search). The mosque houses the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, Ali, who Shiites regard as the prophet's rightful heir.

The voice on the audiotape said Saddam was the leader of all Iraqi people, suggesting he would not launch an attack on any particular ethnic or religious group — Shiites included.

"Saddam Hussein is not the leader of a minority or a group within a group. He is the leader of the great Iraqi people," the voice said.

During his rule, Saddam drew most of his support from Sunni Muslims, a minority in Iraq that oppressed the country's Shiite majority for decades.

Quoting the Quran, the voice said:

"Ye believers, if a corrupt person brought you news, check it well before accusing arbitrarily. Otherwise, you will regret your accusation."

Najaf Gov. Haider Mehadi had asked the FBI to join Iraqi police in the investigation into Friday's bombing, the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (search) said, adding that the American investigators would be traveling to Najaf shortly.

On Monday Iraq's 25-member Governing Council announced a Cabinet, which mirrored exactly the council's ethnic and religious breakdown, with 13 Shiites, five Sunni Arabs, five Kurds (also Sunnis), one ethnic Turk and an Assyrian Christian.

The new Foreign Minister will be Hoshyar Zebari, who was spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party. The key Oil Ministry will be headed by Ibrahim Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, the son of Governing Council member Mohammed Bahr al-Uloum, who on Saturday suspended his membership in the interim body because of the lack of security in the country and what he saw as the Americans' inability to protect prominent figures. The elder Bahr al-Uloum cited the Najaf bombing.

Iraq's Information Ministry, which became famous for its distorted accounts of the war, was abolished.

The Governing Council, formed July 13, had been promising for weeks to name a government. It was unclear what delayed the announcement, but several members of the council had spent much time on trips throughout the world seeking recognition for the body as the legitimate representative of the Iraqi people.

U.S. officials have voiced frustration at the slowness with which the council has gotten down to work, especially on taking a greater role in Iraqi security.

The council said it had delayed announcing the government late last week because of the bombing.

L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, has said an election for a new Iraqi government could take place as soon as the end of 2004, after the adoption of a new constitution.

FBI agents are leading the investigations into both the Aug. 7 bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad and attack on the U.N. headquarters 12 days later.

Iraqi police said the bomb that exploded after noon prayers Friday at the mosque in Najaf contained the equivalent of 1,650 pounds of TNT. They say the 19 suspects arrested so far may have links to Al Qaeda.

Many Shiites have blamed Saddam Hussein loyalists for the blast, but it has also stoked anger at the U.S. occupation forces among some faithful, who say the Americans have not provided security since Saddam's fall.

More than 300,000 Shiites marched Sunday behind the rose-strewn coffin of a beloved cleric assassinated in the bombing, beating their chests and vowing revenge.

With a 110-mile march from Baghdad to the holy city of Najaf, Shiites honored Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, a moderate cleric and once-exiled opponent of Saddam Hussein.

Marchers followed a flatbed truck carrying a symbolic coffin: Authorities said they found only the cleric's hand, watch, wedding band and pen in the wreckage of the enormous blast. His funeral is planned for Tuesday in Najaf, his birthplace.

"Our revenge will be severe on the killers," read one of the many banners carried by mourners.

In Najaf, Maj. Rick Hall, spokesman for the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, said the Marine transfer of the south-central territory around Najaf to an international force led by Poland, set for this week, had been put on hold.

"We now want to stay here and assist as much as possible," Hall said.

The death toll now stood at 125 with 142 wounded, some seriously, Hall said.

He also said U.S. forces had two men in custody that were handed to them by Iraqi authorities. "We are questioning them, but we are leaning toward releasing them," Hall said, adding that the involvement of Al Qaeda members in the Friday explosion was "an option we are looking at."

Hall denied reports that the Marines would patrol around the mosque, citing Islamic sensitivities to having non-Muslims in or around the country's holiest Shiite shrine. He said U.S. forces had offered Marine patrols of the area to the interim Governing Council in Baghdad and religious leaders in Najaf. An answer was expected in the next day or two, he said.

Police detained two Iraqis and two Saudis shortly after the Friday bombing, and they provided information leading to the arrest of 15 other suspects, said a senior police official in Najaf, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Two Kuwaitis and six Palestinians with Jordanian passports were among the suspects, the official said. The remainder were Iraqis and Saudis, the official said, without giving a breakdown.

"They are all connected to Al Qaeda," the official said.

A Saudi Foreign Ministry official, speaking Sunday on condition of anonymity, rejected reports that Saudi citizens were involved.

"The Saudi government would like these sources to reveal the information they have and present it to the Saudi government instead of making statements without any proof," the official told the government-operated Saudi Press Agency.

Hall said American forces had no access to those in Iraqi police custody, but said he had heard numbers ranging from nine to 19.

The bombing in Najaf added urgency to U.S. plans to create a 7,500-strong Iraqi militia that would eventually take over civil defense duties in the country's cities. Gen. John Abizaid, the head of U.S. Central Command, announced plans to create the new militia, called the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, on July 21.

A day before the bombing, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said mobilizing the Iraqi militia — rather than bringing in more U.S. or coalition troops — was the key to stabilizing the security situation in the country.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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