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Muqtada al-Sadr's office condemns Iraqi governor's assassination

Muqtada al-Sadr's office on Tuesday condemned the assassinations of two southern provincial governors showing that the radical Shiite cleric wants to distance himself from a brutal contest among rival Shiite militias for control of some of Iraq's main oil regions.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, meanwhile, said the United States can't solve Iraq's problems on its own, and that Iraqi officials he has met during his trip to Baghdad this week are hoping France can play a role in their troubled country.

Kouchner was speaking to France's RTL radio from Baghdad, where he arrived Sunday on a highly symbolic, surprise visit seen as marking a shift in France's relations with the United States and Iraq. It was the first visit by a top French official since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which France fiercely opposed.

"It was necessary to be here," Koucher said as he wrapped up his three-day trip. "Everyone knows that the Americans cannot bring this country out of difficulty all alone."

And Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, sought improved relations and help in the immediate neighborhood, meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad on the second day of a visit to Iraq's predominantly Sunni neighbor.

There were reports that Assad was prepared to offer a security pact that could tighten the Syrian border against foreign fighters who have crossed into Iraq since the summer of 2003. Syria and Saudi Arabia are believed to be a main pipeline for groups such as al-Qaida in Iraq, which was blamed for the deadliest coordinated attack of the war last week when suicide bombers killed at least 400 people belonging to a small religious sect near the Syrian border.

Iraqi police had blamed Monday's roadside bombing that killed the governor of the vast Muthanna province on the powerful Mahdi Army, which is nominally loyal to al-Sadr but has seen factions splinter away over frustration with U.S. raids targeting the militia that has been blamed for much of the sectarian violence in recent months.

The attacks that killed Gov. Mohammed Ali al-Hassani and his colleague Gov. Khalil Jalil Hamza in neighboring Qadasiyah province nine days earlier raised fears that showdowns in southern Iraq - pitting Mahdi groups against the mainstream Shiite group in parliament - could intensify as the British forces overseeing the south gradually withdraw in the coming months.

Both governors were members of a powerhouse among Shiite political organizations, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim. His loyalists, who dominate the police in the south of Iraq, have been fighting Mahdi Army militiamen for dominance in the south - which may hold 70 percent or more of Iraq's oil reserves, according to various estimates.

The reclusive cleric issued a statement late Monday praising efforts against the foreign forces but condemning the attacks against the Shiite governors, which he said were aimed at creating a rift among Iraq's majority Islamic sect.

"The cruel deeds that have been done in Diwaniyah and Samawah are part of occupation plots that aim to create a climate of pretexts for them to stay in Iraq," al-Sadr said, using the term occupation to refer to U.S.-led forces.

He also called for committees comprising political and social authorities to be established under religious supervision in each of Iraq's 18 provinces "so that these events would not repeated in the south or in any part of Iraq."

Al-Sadr also renewed his demand for a timetable to be set for the withdrawal of the U.S.-led troops.

His office in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad, was more direct in its denial.

"We don't have any relation with these acts or have any involvement, we condemn such acts that aim at destabilizing the situation in the center and southern Iraq," al-Sadr's spokesman Ahmed al-Shibani said Tueday.

Just a few months ago, the Mahdi Army and its leader, firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, were seen as reluctant - but critical - partners with Iraq's leadership. Al-Sadr agreed to government appeals to lessen his anti-American fervor and not directly challenge the waves of U.S. soldiers trying to regain control of Baghdad and surrounding areas.

But now, the once-cohesive ranks of the Mahdi Army are splintering into rival factions with widely varying priorities.

Meanwhile, a range of initiatives, both political and diplomatic, reached a near dizzying pace as the Sept. 15 deadline approached for U.S. President George W. Bush's administration to report to Congress on its Iraq policies.

The French foreign minister said the Iraqis are "expecting something" from France, without elaborating.

"I believe that based on what plays out here, the world will be changed .... And we should be there," he told RTL.

Kouchner insisted that the trip was his own idea and was not prompted by new French President Nicolas Sarkozy's meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in Maine earlier this month.

"We have distinguished ourselves very clearly from American policy and we were not supporters of the American intervention," he said, adding that France has a "very particular position" in Iraq.

Iraqi prosecutors opened their third case against former regime officials on Tuesday, with Saddam's cousin known as "Chemical Ali" and 14 others facing charges of crimes against humanity for the brutal crushing of a Shiite uprising after the 1991 Gulf War.

Ali Hassan al-Majid, who gained the nickname "Chemical Ali" after chemical attacks on Kurdish towns during the so-called Anfal campaign, entered the courtroom wearing his traditional white Arab robe and a red and white checkered headdress.

He and two other defendants already face the death penalty after being convicted in another trial for the killing of more than 100,000 Kurds in a 1980s military campaign known as Anfal. Saddam and three others were hanged for the 1982 killings of 148 Shiites in the town of Dujail.

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