Baghdad, 16 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, today threatened to call for protests and work strikes unless the U.S.-led coalition allows direct elections to form a new Iraqi government.
Al-Sistani's representative in the city of Karbala, Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Karabalai, said there may also be a "confrontation" if the U.S.-led coalition insists on what he called "colonial plans."
In Baghdad, the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, General Richard Sanchez, called on supporters of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to lay down their arms. Sanchez said U.S. forces will be "relentless" in pursuing insurgents.
The first Japanese ground troops, about 30 members of its Self-Defense Force, left for Iraq today. Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru
Ishiba wished the troops success in their noncombat mission.
"The Self-Defense Force is the pride of the Japanese people, the pride of the nation. I hope you will be able to complete your mission safely and I hope those of you who are in the advance team will gather information on the security situation and the needs of the area and report back to us."
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin says France -- which opposed the war in Iraq -- may consider taking a role in security operations in Iraq after power is transferred to Iraqi authorities.