WASHINGTON—Iraq's most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric has notified President Bush that he won't compromise on his demand for the direct election of an assembly that would select a new government, a senior administration official said Friday.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani's position was set out in a confidential letter to Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The letter was written by Abdel-Aziz al Hakim, a Shiite cleric and member of the U.S.-installed Iraqi Governing Council who's acted as an intermediary between Sistani and L. Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
"What he (Sistani) wants is made very clear," said the senior administration official. "It is not ambiguous."
The letter raised the stakes in a dispute between the United States and Sistani that threatens to deepen the turmoil in Iraq and foil Bush's hopes to begin a major reduction in U.S. occupation forces as he heads into his campaign for re-election.
The Bush administration said there isn't enough time to organize a free and fair election before handing over power to an interim Iraqi government, scheduled for July 1 under a Nov. 15 agreement with the Governing Council.
The agreement calls for the interim government to be selected by an interim assembly that would be elected by regional caucuses of tribal and community leaders, intellectuals and other prominent citizens. Direct elections would not be held until 2005.
Word of the letter emerged as Bush huddled at the White House with Bremer on how to defuse the confrontation with Sistani and Iraq's Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the country's 25 million people.
Bremer also held two meetings at the White House with Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Bremer was to meet Monday in New York with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan over enlisting the United Nations' help in persuading Sistani to drop his demand.
In the letter, Hakim wrote that Sistani was adamant that the interim assembly that will select the new government be popularly elected, the senior administration official said.
Sistani also objects to a provision of the Nov. 15 agreement that calls for the Governing Council to adopt a "fundamental law" legitimizing the U.S.-backed transition process by Feb. 28.
"They do not want it dictated by the CPA and handed to the GC," or Governing Council, the senior administration official said. "It's hard to push against that. It sounds an awful lot like democracy."
There was no sign, however, that the Bush administration was ready to give in to Sistani.
"We believe that the Nov. 15 agreement is the way forward," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Bremer said there could be areas in Iraq that were peaceful enough to hold elections for some interim assembly members.
"There are all kinds of ways to organize partial elections and caucuses," he said. "We have always said we're willing to consider refinements, and that's something that we will be discussing at the appropriate time."
Sistani commands enormous influence over Iraq's Shiites, and so far he's ensured their grudging acceptance of the U.S.-led occupation.
But the Bush administration's failure to satisfy Sistani's demands could prompt him to issue a religious decree declaring the new government illegitimate. Such a decree could ignite a Shiite revolt.
"Sistani has been one of the forces that has kept things under control," said Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst at the National Defense University.
The Shiites, persecuted for decades under Saddam Hussein, want to realize their claim to political power. But Shiite domination of the government would enrage the minority Sunni Muslims, who've traditionally ruled Iraq and have lost their privileged position, and the Kurds, who want to maintain their autonomy in the north.
The Bush administration hopes Bremer can persuade Annan to dispatch a U.N. delegation to Iraq to convince Sistani there's no time to organize elections. Annan has expressed such reservations himself. The Shiite cleric may be more open to accepting this view if it comes from the United Nations.
"One area where I think the U.N. can be helpful is in helping to bring all parties together to support the 15 November plan," Powell said in an interview Friday with a Dutch television station.
Powell said Governing Council members, who also will attend the New York talks, had asked Annan for "ideas for alternative ways of dealing with the caucus question."
The United Nations could examine ways to ensure that the caucuses are open and free from influence peddling.
But its precise role remained uncertain amid lingering concerns about the safety of U.N. personnel in Iraq, and U.N. officials cautioned that they don't expect Monday's talks to produce any immediate action.
(Warren P. Strobel, Joseph L. Galloway and William Douglas contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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