By Suleiman al-Khalidi
NAJAF, Iraq - Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Muslim cleric, gave his conditional approval to the interim government on Thursday but said it had "mammoth tasks" ahead.
Sistani said the government, chosen by the United Nations, the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and U.S. officials, lacked "electoral legitimacy" but said it remained a step in the right direction and would succeed if specific goals were met.
"The hope is that this government will prove its worthiness and integrity and its firm readiness to perform the mammoth tasks it is burdened with," the Shi'ite cleric said in a partly hand-written statement issued by his office in the holy city of Najaf and stamped with his official seal.
Sistani, who holds huge sway over Iraq's 60 percent Shi'ite majority, listed four key tasks that the government had to tackle -- security, basic services for all, a new U.N. resolution granting Iraqi full sovereignty and the organizing of free and fair elections early next year.
"The new government will not have popular acceptance unless it proves through practical and clear steps that it seeks diligently and seriously to achieve these tasks," Sistani said.
He said the government would also be judged on how successful it is at alleviating the impact of 15 months of occupation.
The government was sworn in on Tuesday with Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite and former CIA-backed opposition leader in exile, as its prime minister and Ghazi al-Yawar, a Sunni tribal leader and former telecoms manager in Saudi Arabia, as its president.
The posts were chosen after weeks of debate and discussion led by U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in coordination with the now dissolved Governing Council and U.S. officials, particularly Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq.
"The situation that has arisen has resulted in the formation of a new government without electoral legitimacy in addition to the fact that not all segments of Iraqi society and its political forces are represented in an appropriate manner," Sistani said, adding that he hoped elections would be held by the deadline of January 2005.
The government held its first cabinet meeting on Wednesday, but the planned handover to an interim Iraqi government will not take place until June 30. Even then, 150,000 U.S.-led troops will continue to be in charge of security in Iraq.