A member of the US-appointed occupation administration confirmed the cleric was still in the Shia pilgrimage city on Thursday awaiting a UN mission that will review his political demands.

His spokesman and Governing Council member, Muwaffaq al-Rubai, confirmed Wednesday's assassination attempt but said little else other than that al-Sistani is "safe and sound".

Sistani's bureau in Najaf also confirmed that the cleric was well.

Shia targets

Speaking to Aljazeera, al-Rubai said: "We are not astonished that Ayat Allah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani, the revered Shia cleric, should be a target … he is calling for democracy and rebuilding a new Iraq."

Last October, a similar assassination attempt was made when unknown assailants attacked with machine guns and hand grenades.

The death of Ayat Allah Muhammad
Baqir al-Hakim outraged thousands 

It was not clear who was behind the attempts on the cleric's life, as sectarian clashes, resistance operations and attacks on civilian targets have been a common occurrence since April.

In September 2003, Shia cleric Ayat Allah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim – the former leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq – died in a Najaf car bombing along with 80 of his followers.

Mortar attack

Elsewhere in Iraq, a US soldier was killed on Thursday when four mortars struck a logistics base near Baghdad's airport. The attack also wounded another marine.

Aljazeera's correspondent in Baghdad reported that an Iraqi citizen was killed on Thursday when a US military convoy, which had come under rocket attack by unidentified assailants, opened random fire at his car.

 

"The Iraqi citizen was driving his car on the highway in al-Amiriyah district when he was shot dead.

 

Witnesses at the scene said the firing had damaged a mosque and the frontages of neighbouring houses. 

The fatality raised the total number of US troops killed in Iraq to 529, 369 in combat and 160 in non-combat deaths.
   
Unofficial war estimates put the Iraqi military toll at between five and six thousand, while a website run by academics and peace activists,
www.iraqbodycount.net, puts the number of civilian deaths at around 9000.