In an exclusive audiotape aired on Aljazeera on Monday Hussein rejected any involvment in the Najaf attacks last Friday that left at least 82 others killed and more than 100 people hurt.

Reciting a verse from the Holy Quran urging people to ignore news reported by vicious people, Hussein said he was not a leader of a minority or a single Iraqi group.

“(Saddam Hussein) is the leader of all people of Iraq: Muslims, non-Muslims, Shia, Sunnis, Kurds and all other groups,” he said.

“The infidel invaders are accusing, without proof, the followers of Saddam Hussein after the killing of Shia leader Hakim," said Hussein. "This is not what Saddam attributes to himself.

Marines in Najaf

US military sources said that Marines are to deploy in Najaf for an undertermined period of time.

Occupation authorities said that plans for a 3 September handover to a contingent of 9000 Polish-led forces in the south-central region of Iraq from the Marines would still take place.

This means security in Najaf will become the responsibility of Spanish troops.

Meanwhile, discontent towards the US occupation is on the rise among Iraq's Shias as the country continues to slide into chaos.

Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani said American and British troops were "responsible for the insecurity" that reined in the occupied country.

 

Thousands of Shia have turned out
to mourn Ayat Allah Hakim

"It is obvious that those behind this heinous crime and the crimes perpetrated in Najaf and other Iraqi cities...try to sow discord among the children of Iraq," said al-Sistani in a statement released late on Sunday.  

Tensions

In related developments, Iraqi officials said they arrested two men on Monday after finding vehicles packed with bombs outside al-Kufa mosque in the city of Kufa, about 180km south of Baghdad.

During routine searches, policemen noticed the seats of the vehicles were not well designed and had new covers, arousing their suspicions. They found the seats filled with explosives.

The two detained men were from the mainly Shia southern city of Basra.

Kufah is also mainly Shia city. The remains of al-Hakim are due to pass through it during a funeral procession before he is buried in Najaf on Tuesday.

Inside Kufah's mosque, clerics were urging people to stay on alert because "Hussein's followers and al-Qaida will try today or tomorrow to make large explosions" in the city.