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Shia cleric ready to work with US
Iran-backed Iraqi Shia leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim. (Reuters)

Tehran, April 23 (Reuters): An Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia leader said he was ready to work with the US and the international community to improve the conditions of Iraqis and establish security and stability in his war-torn homeland.

But Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, one of the most powerful voices among Iraq's majority Shias, said fervent demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims at the holy shrine of Kerbala showed Iraqis were able to govern themselves.

“There is no doubt we are going to cooperate with all sides and forces that have relations with the Iraqi issue,” Hakim told Reuters in an interview. “Among these sides are America, Britain, the UN, the EU, Arab and Islamic states.”

Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), has lived in exile in Tehran for more than 20 years and has often been portrayed as a firebrand wanting to establish an Iranian-style Islamic republic in Iraq.

“We cannot make a comparison between the Iraqi and the Iranian people... the characteristics of the Iraqi people are different to those of Iranian people,” he said. “We should not make a copy of the Iranian revolution and establish it in Iraq.”

Hakim said there could be a separation of church and state in Iraq, unlike in his host country Iran.

“Religious leaders are from the people and they must carry out their responsibilities,” he said.“(But) it is not very necessary for the Iraqi regime to be in the hands of religious people. It all depends on the will of the Iraqi people.”

Hakim denied there was a rift between himself and Ayatollah Ali Sistani, another senior Iraqi Shia cleric who has advocated a secular system in Iraq. Sistani’s house was besieged by rival hardliners in the holy city of Najaf last week.

“There is no problem between myself and Ayatollah Sistani, on the contrary, we have the greatest respect for one another.” Hakim said he planned to return to Iraq “in the very near future”.

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shia pilgrims have filled the holy city of Karbala this week in a show of strength marked by chants of “Yes to Islam, no to America” raising worries in Washington of a rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq. Hakim, stroking his grey beard, played down such fears.

“In these marches the Iraqi people want to say they are able to manage their affairs themselves,” he said. “I believe the Iraqi people have no enmity, no hostility toward any other side or country, they only want freedom, security, justice and independence.”

Asked if US troops should immediately leave Iraq, Hakim said: “The Iraqi people must start to establish their national government and take responsibility to manage their affairs. There is no necessity for any foreign domination in Iraq.

“The Americans say they will remain in Iraq only for a very limited period, but I don’t know how long that will last.”

Despite saying he was ready to work with Washington, Hakim’s SCIRI boycotted a meeting between Iraqi opposition and US officials in Nassiriya last week. He said he had no information about a similar meeting due to be held in Baghdad on Saturday.

“We have no information about that meeting,” he said. “We had no precise information about the meeting in Nassiriya, that was one of the reasons we didn’t attend.”

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