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Shiite cleric calls for Iraq elections by year's end

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, who has become the country's most influential political voice, said Thursday that he would accept a delay in elections for the first post-Saddam sovereign government—but only until the end of the year.

In a statement from his office in Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani said he would accept the assumption of power by an unelected administration when the United States returns sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30, but he called for a U.N. Security Council resolution to guarantee that elections would be held soon afterward.

A U.N. fact-finding mission to Iraq concluded last week that elections could be held within eight months, but only if legal and technical requirements were met quickly. Sistani's statement gives the U.S.-led coalition some breathing room—he previously had urged elections be held before the June handover—but it also will require an accelerated effort to clear the logistical and security hurdles for Iraq's first-ever free election.

Officials of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council, which is supposed to announce a plan for a transitional government by Feb. 28, said this week that the temporary government will probably consist of an executive board drawn from the council's leading members.

Also under discussion is what the new plan will say about Kurdish demands for autonomy in northern Iraq.

Nearly everyone now concedes that the U.S. proposal for transition—a system of caucuses to create a transitional assembly that would have been more representative than the Governing Council—is dead. The U.N. report said the plan was too complex and not viable.

Sistani said that whatever temporary, non-elected government takes over this year should have limited authority and should mainly work on "preparing the country for free and honest elections."

The Iranian-born Sistani has become the de facto power broker for Iraq's Shiites, who make up some 60 percent of the country's population. As such, he has come to wield enormous influence over the process under which the United States hands over power to a new Iraqi government.

Although Sistani has said Islamic law should be the main source of legislation in Iraq, he has specifically disavowed an Iranian-style theocracy and has said that clerics, including him, have no business holding political office.

He has shown no qualms, however, about seeking to shape Iraq's future political system, even as he affirms his interest in democracy and pluralism.

It's not clear how closely Iraqis are paying attention as the country's political elites debate the nature of the temporary government after the handover. What is clear, according to recent opinion polls and interviews, is that Iraqis adamantly want the handover, and they urgently want elections to determine their eventual leaders.

The debate is happening against the backdrop of continued violence.

On Thursday, a bomb exploded near a police car in Baqouba, a town about 30 miles northwest of Baghdad, killing one police officer, wounding four others and damaging four police vehicles.

On Wednesday, two pilots from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment died when their OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopter clipped a power line and crashed into the Euphrates River.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SISTANI

Iraq

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