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Iraq: U.S. Rejects Shi'a Cleric's Call For Early Direct Elections

The U.S. administrator for Iraq has rejected a Shi'a cleric's call to hold elections to fill positions in a provisional national authority. Iraq's most senior Shi'a Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, warned yesterday of increased political tensions if his demands for direct elections are not met. Al-Sistani's demands come amid increased tensions in some mainly Shi'a towns in the south of the country.

Prague, 12 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The chief U.S. administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, today rejected calls by an influential Shi'a Muslim cleric for direct and quick elections to a provisional national assembly.

Bremer said it would be better to follow an agreement reached last year that foresees regional caucuses, not voters, picking the provisional assembly that will pave the way for full elections in 2005.

"We think it is important to implement the 15 November agreement, which was agreed by the Governing Council and has been submitted to the United Nations, as the best way forward before the return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people and to provide for elections in about a year now to a constituent assembly," Bremer said.

Yesterday, Iraq's most influential Shi'a Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the U.S. plan, in his opinion, would not create a legitimate government and might lead to increased political tensions.

Al-Sistani said, "If formed through a mechanism that does not have adequate legitimacy, the national provisional assembly and the government [appointed by it] will not be able to carry out the tasks demanded from them and to adhere to the timetable set for the transitional period."

Bremer said the Governing Council is discussing the issue with al-Sistani but did not provide more information. "The Governing Council is in discussions with the grand ayatollah, for whom we have the greatest respect, and I think it's probably best if I leave those discussions between the Governing Council and the ayatollah," he said.

Yahia Said, a research officer who specializes in Iraq and other nations in transition for the London School of Economics and Political Science, says Bremer has good reasons to oppose elections now. He says elections should mark the end of a democratic process and cannot be an end in itself. "You need to have security, free media, functioning political parties to have a pre-election debate," he said.

He says there are also no mechanisms in place to secure the rights of national minorities, such as the Kurds, who now enjoy de facto autonomy.

Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council generally supports the U.S. view, but some of its members may have motivations other than the lack of security or democracy. Said says some on the council fear they may lose power if the elections are held too soon.

Al-Sistani's comments come as Shi'a political parties in general appear to hold a clear advantage. The Shi'a comprise the country's largest religious group. "One should not forget also that the main interest of al-Sistani and his followers in a quick elections, in an accelerated election program, is because they believe that they have an advantage vis-a-vis other groups, that the Shi'a parties, especially this Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq [SCIRI], would have an advantage over other groups if elections were to be held sooner rather than later," Said said.

Said says because of ongoing violence in majority Sunni areas, Shi'a parties are freer to develop their own election strategies. "All the groups that are associated with the middle of the country or the north of the country or northwest of the country are less prepared now to wage an election campaign, whereas the Shi'a groups -- such as SCIRI in particular or Al-Da'wa party -- believe that they have well-established mechanisms to campaign in the elections," he said.

This is not the first time that Shi'a clerics have been vocal in advocating elections to the provisional bodies. On 26 November, Shaykh Ayatollah Yaqubi, close to al-Sistani, told RFE/RL there were no reasons why these bodies should not be directly elected "when some 80 percent of the country is stable." The same day the position was reiterated by al-Sistani.

Al-Sistani's comments come amid increasing tensions in some Shi'a areas in the south.

In the southern town of Al-Amarah, some 400 kilometers from Baghdad, at least six Iraqis were killed and eight wounded on 10 January when Iraqi police and British forces opened fire on armed men who reportedly infiltrated a protest by unemployed workers. Until that day Al-Amarah had been mostly quiet.

Paul Carnish, an analyst at Kings College in London, says Shi'a militancy seems to be on the rise and might cause problems for the U.S.-led coalition. "The problem or the issue of Shi'a militancy basically has been kind of latent for a while and now it does look as if it might be building up and becoming [an] urgent problem," he said.

Carnish says different groups are seeking their own agendas. The Kurds in the north of the country are seeking greater autonomy. Many Sunnis remain opposed to the U.S. occupation.

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