BAGHDAD, Iraq — As a huge funeral procession for a beloved Shiite cleric marched to the holy city of Najaf, Arab TV broadcast an audiotape Monday purportedly from Saddam Hussein denying any involvement in the bombing that killed the moderate ayatollah.
The U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council, meanwhile, named a new Cabinet in a step toward reclaiming some powers from the American occupiers. The new government mirrors the ethnic and religious makeup of the 25-member council.
The voice on the tape appeared to be that of Saddam and employed his well-known rhetorical flourishes in urging Iraqis not to believe those who blamed him and his followers for Friday's attack on the sacred Imam Ali shrine in Najaf that killed Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim and 124 other people.
"Many of you may have heard the snakes hissing, the servants of the invaders, occupiers, infidels, and how they have managed to accuse the followers of Saddam Hussein of responsibility for the attack on al-Hakim without any evidence," said the tape, broadcast by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite television station and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.
"They rushed to accuse before investigating," the voice said.
While denying a role in the Najaf bombing, the voice made no mention of the Jordanian Embassy bombing on Aug. 7 or the U.N. headquarters attack 12 days later, which investigators suspect may have also been committed by Saddam followers.
It was impossible to immediately authenticate the tape. The CIA said Monday it was reviewing the recording.
Al-Hakim, killed in Friday's huge blast shortly after delivering a sermon calling for Iraqi unity, was a longtime opponent of Saddam and spent more than two decades in exile in Iran, returning only in May.
His remains are to be buried in Najaf on Tuesday when the funeral procession reaches the ayatollah's hometown. It started in Baghdad on Sunday and passed through the second holiest city of Karbala on Monday.
Masses of Iraqi security forces were present Monday throughout Najaf, the country's holiest Shiite city, with 400 police preparing to take up positions around the mosque. U.S. forces could not be seen in the city proper and were believed manning checkpoints on roads into Najaf.
Black banners of mourning, some 150 feet long, were draped across the gold-domed mosque. People could be heard crying inside the shrine.
Some Iraqi police officials leading the investigation of the bombing have said they believe al-Qaida linked Islamic militants were behind the attack — not Saddam loyalists. The FBI said it would help investigate the bombing after receiving a request from local officials.
Also 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, a 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 American's inability to protect prominent figures. The elder Bahr al-Uloum cited the Najaf bombing.
The Information Ministry, which became famous for its distorted accounts of the war, has been abolished.
The council, formed July 13, had been promising for weeks that it would name a government. It was unclear what delayed announcing the Cabinet, but several council members had spent much time after their appointment 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 how long it was taking the council to get to work, especially on taking a greater role in Iraqi security and gathering intelligence that might block more attacks on American forces and prominent Iraqis.
The council said it had been prepared to announce the government late last week but delayed it because of the bombing.
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, has said an election for a new government could take place as early as the end of 2004 after the adoption of a new constitution.
Iraqi police said the Najaf bomb that exploded after noon prayers Friday contained the equivalent of 1,650 pounds of TNT. They say the 19 suspects arrested so far may have links to al-Qaida.
The death toll stood at 125 with 142 wounded, some seriously, said Maj. Rick Hall, spokesman for the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines.
He said the Marine transfer of patrols in Najaf to an international force led by Poland, set for this week, had been put on hold. The overall handover ceremony will still take place Wednesday in Hilla.