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Iraqi leader sees no obstacles to direct elections

NAJAF, Iraq—The most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric in Iraq is hoping the Bush administration will allow the country to hold direct elections because otherwise he may be forced to support a revolt that could tear the nation apart, a spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani said Thursday.

Sistani met with his supporters recently in which he discussed the ongoing showdown between his demand for elections and the U.S. refusal to grant them, said Noor Aldin Alwaadh, a spokesman for Sistani's Baghdad office. At the end of the talk, which lasted for hours, Sistani "was clear about it—he wants direct elections," Alwaadh said.

"We are not the Taliban and we are not al-Qaida," Alwaadh said. "But if you want to hear me say it, fine. We will fight for our rights. We will fight we will not sacrifice our independence, and we do not want occupying forces in our country."

Sistani's views, and those of many ordinary Shiites, suggest that the United States may have little room for maneuver as it tries to engineer an orderly transition to Iraqi self-rule by the end of June. Earlier this week, Iraq's Shiite leadership sent tens of thousands of followers to the streets, calling for direct elections in a stark demonstration of their power.

The U.S. administration said there's not enough to time to organize elections by the end of June. Sistani hasn't specified a timetable for elections. But even if Sistani agreed to elections later this year or even in 2005, President Bush's political advisers are eager to begin a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq well before Election Day in November.

Alwaadh said Sistani doesn't believe U.S. contentions that elections are impossible because of the lack of a census and suggested that Iraqis could use rosters from past United Nations-sponsored Oil-for-Food ration cards and supplement those names with foreign-issued identification cards for those returning from exile.

There have been conflicting reports on whether Sistani might accept a U.N. finding that elections were technically impossible. When asked about a possible U.N. mission to Iraq now being considered, Alwaadh said Sistani hopes the United Nations would help oversee the elections.

L. Paul Bremer III, the top American envoy to Iraq, plans to hand over power to an Iraqi legislative body selected by a series of caucuses across the nation. The groups would be selected in large part by local politicians and the U.S.-appointed interim Iraqi Governing Council. Many Iraqis complain that because those local politicians and council members were appointed by Americans, they will be beholden to the Bush administration. Some officials in Vice President Cheney's office and in the Pentagon still want postwar Iraq to make peace with Israel, allow the United States to base troops there and serve as a secular, democratic model for the Middle East.

Interviews this week in Baghdad and in Sistani's home base of Najaf suggest that the senior cleric is restraining less moderate Shiite religious leaders, trying to prevent violence and hoping that the Bush administration agrees to allow elections before it's too late. Sistani has said that he prefers civil disobedience, but many on the street say they have little patience for such measures.

"If there are no elections, there will first be a strike with a lot of violence in the streets," said Luai al Mansori, a member of the Hawza in Najaf, a group of Shiite scholars who issue fatwahs, or edicts, that are followed as the highest law by Iraqi Shiites. Shiites make up about 60 percent of the nation's 26 million people. "The revolt will begin in Najaf because Sistani has more power here."

Amir Abdul Karim, a perfume salesman in Najaf, agreed. "We will fight for the freedom and the direct elections the will of the people is more powerful than the Americans."

Any compromise short of elections, such as making the caucus selection process more open to the public, wouldn't be enough to placate men such as Mansori and Karim, said Alwaadh, the Sistani spokesman.

"We wish that the Americans will leave by themselves and not by coffins, so we are hoping for direct elections," Alwaadh said.

Sistani is mindful of Iraqi blood that was shed in the eight-year war with Iran, the invasion of Kuwait and two ensuing wars with the United States, Alwaadh said, and doesn't want more fighting. All he's asking for, Alwaadh said, is the democracy promised when the U.S.-led coalition toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein, who tortured and killed thousands of Shiites in Iraq.

Alwaadh refused to comment specifically on whether Sistani would issue a call for violence if elections failed to materialize.

Some Iraqis believe Shiite leaders want elections so they can use their majority vote to create a theocracy.

The clerics have been "telling the Americans what they want to hear, but as soon as the Americans turn their face, they will bring Islamic rule," said Sadoun al Dulame, the executive director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, an independent think tank and polling agency. "They are just using the democratic language as a tool. All of the religious groups are pushing for a theocracy."

Sistani has avoided appearing before demonstrators and has refused to meet with U.S. officials. Conflicting reports about his views frequently appear.

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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SISTANI

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