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December 27, 2004 3:00 AM

Iraq's Shiite leaders patch rift with secular, religious slate

Top Shiite Muslim leaders, who are expected to wield the most power after next months parliamentary elections, are locked in a fierce dispute over whether the new Iraq should be a constitution-based democracy or an Iranian-style state in which clerics reign supreme. Several Shiite politicians say the debate nearly caused the disintegration of a powerhouse Shiite slate assembled under the auspices of the Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, Iraqs most prominent cleric. A breakdown was averted when religious parties backed by Iran agreed to expand the number of secularists and religious moderates on the slate. The debate still simmers and could boil over after the Jan. 30 elections, which will choose a national assembly to draft a new constitution. Western diplomats are nervous that the Bush administrations goal of making Iraq a model of Middle Eastern democracy will backfire if Shiite clerics take the top posts in the newly elected government.

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