| Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, leader of Iraq’s biggest Shia group, addresses supporters in Basra on Saturday. (Reuters)
Basra, United Nations, May 10 (Reuters): Thousands of Iraqis thronged near Basra today to welcome a senior Shia cleric back from exile, hours after the US introduced a UN resolution to end sanctions and give Washington and its allies control over Iraqi oil revenues.
Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, leader of Iraq’s biggest Shia group, crossed the border from Iran to a jubilant welcome from crowds of emotional supporters near the southern city of Basra.
His close ties to Iran and the armed militia known as the Badr Forces which he commands have aroused some alarm in Washington, but Hakim has sought to play down those fears.
However he said before he left Tehran that the presence of foreign forces in Iraq, where Shias are a majority, was “a very big problem which must be dealt with”. He also said he would address living standards in Iraq, try to re-establish order and security, and work to allow Iraqis to choose a government which would represent all Iraqi factions.
In New York yesterday, the 15-nation Security Council discussed the US-drafted resolution mapping out who controls post-war Iraq but France, Russia and others raised pointed questions on the limited UN role envisaged. Co-sponsored by Britain and Spain, the resolution establishes a new interim authority to rule Iraq, as well as lifting all trade and financial sanctions imposed after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, leaving only an arms embargo in place.
As he stepped back into his country, Hakim also entered the jostling for position in a power vacuum that a diverse and fractious former Iraqi Opposition is scrambling to fill. His powerful Muslim group belongs to a US-backed Iraqi council which meets regularly to map out a future government.
The influential cleric, who was jailed and tortured in the 1970s for opposing former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, has headed the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) since 1980 in exile in neighbouring Iran.
Hakim has said he favours a democratically elected, broad-based coalition government to replace Saddam, who was toppled by US-led forces in a war launched on March 20.
“I have great faith that God almighty will free the Iraqi people and restore Iraq to its former position in the region and the rest of the world, God willing,” Hakim said today.
Participants in yesterday’s closed UN Security Council meeting said the debate was free of the acrimony that marked the run-up to the war and that the proposed resolution garnered some international support.
The resolution, which does not mention weapons of mass destruction or a role for arms inspections, also sets out to scrap the oil-for-food programme within four months.
“I would say most delegations saw this as charting a way forward and certainly they had some questions,” US ambassador John Negroponte said.
Powell in Jerusalem
US secretary of state Colin Powell arrived in West Asia today to push a new “road map” peace plan, urging a sceptical Israel and the Palestinians to carry out initial confidence-building steps. Sources close to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said earlier that Israel would balk at any early relaxation of its military grip on Palestinians, as the road map envisions, as long as they had not jailed militant groups.