Hackers defaced the official Web site of Iraq's top Shiite cleric, mocking him in language often used by Sunni Arab extremists. A news agency in Shiite-dominated Iran said al-Sistani's site was among hundreds that were targeted.
The hacked site at www.sistani.org contained a statement accusing Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of issuing "perverse" edicts. Also posted was a YouTube clip showing American comedian Bill Maher joking about an edict on sexual behavior that was allegedly handed down by al-Sistani.
An aide to al-Sistani, who lives in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, said Saturday that the cleric had never issued such an edict. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
"This issue is not new and our own Web site has been attacked four times before," said Ali al-Najafi, son of Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, a leading cleric in Najaf. "Such acts will not affect our policy and beliefs. Such acts are carried out by groups that want to damage the image of al-Marjiyah (the Shiite leadership) and to fight the truth we are representing."
The hacked site lists a contact e-mail that includes the words Tora Bora, an apparent reference to the al Qaeda hide-out used by Osama bin Laden, a Sunni Arab, during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. It said the hacking was carried out by "Group XP," but did not elaborate.
Sunni extremists do not consider Shiites to be true Muslims and sectarian violence has been intense during the Iraq war.
"Do you think that you are alone on the Internet and no one can attack your Web site?" a statement on the hacked site read. "Today, we are erasing your Web site as we did with many Web sites for the (Shiite) renegades and any other Web sites that offend Sunnis."
Al-Sistani's aide said hackers hit the site on Thursday, and that the cleric's office can open a new site if necessary. Al-Sistani has used the site mostly to respond to questions from followers, but the hackers have made his comments inaccessible.
An Iranian news agency, Fars, reported that the same hackers had blocked access to almost 300 Shiite-related sites on Thursday and Friday. Neither this claim nor an Iranian assertion that the hackers were based in the United Arab Emirates could be verified independently.
Several Iranian news sites said late Friday that many of the Shiite and Iran-related Web sites that had been attacked were running normally again.
Fars reported that a counterattack of sorts had been carried out against "two major Wahhabi Web sites," referring to the puritanical strain of Sunni Islam that is dominant in Saudi Arabia.
A senior Iranian Shiite religious leader in Qom, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, condemned the attacks on Shiite sites.
"Fanatical Wahhabis do not want the voice of Shiite officials to reach the world," Fars quoted Shirazi as saying. "They think they can stop the rapid growth of Shiism through censorship. We will rebuild our sites and Wahhabis must know that Sunni youth turn to Shiite sect more than before."
In Other Developments:
The explosion happened in a Shiite neighborhood of Tal Afar, where al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni extremist groups remain active.
Mouyyad al-Lami had taken over the job as the head of the union after an earlier chief, Shihab al-Timimi, was shot and killed in an ambush in February. Journalists have frequently been targeted or caught up in attacks in Iraq.
Al-Lami had just met with some guests in his office when the bomb exploded at the gates to the building, said Sabah Abdullah, a union official who witnessed the attack. Al-Lami suffered light injuries and was back in his office later in the day, while two union guards were also injured, Abdullah said.