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Al-Hakim Says U.S., UN Should Focus On Iraq Elections

Washington, 20 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, an ally of Iraqi Shi'ite leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (pictured), says the United States and the United Nations should focus on the feasibility of direct elections rather than other plans to choose an interim government in June.

Al-Hakim, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and an ally of al-Sistani, told reporters in Washington today that demonstrations by tens of thousands of Iraqis highlighted the sentiment in favor of elections. Al-Hakim made the comments after a meeting at the White House with U.S. President George W. Bush.

Al-Sistani's call for immediate direct elections has posed complications for the U.S.-led occupation, which wants caucuses to select a temporary government. That plan calls for a handover of sovereignty by 30 June. The United Nations is expected to send a mission to Iraq to help resolve the issue.

Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority continued today to fill the streets of Baghdad with demonstrators calling for direct elections and for ex-dictator Saddam Hussein's blood.

News reports said that thousands of protesters turned out today as yesterday, but in somewhat smaller numbers and with a changed focus. The main message of the protests today was their call for execution of Hussein. Sheik Abbas Mehdi said: "We want Saddam to be considered a war criminal, not a prisoner of war."

U.S. forces flushed Hussein out of hiding in December. Earlier this month they announced that the U.S. military considers the former Iraqi leader a prisoner of war. The United States says an Iraqi court eventually should put Hussein on trial for war crimes.

In yesterday's protests, tens of thousands of Shi'ite demonstrators called on U.S. authorities to permit Iraq to elect its leaders by direct elections. The United States has proposed an intermediate step to hand over power to a provisional legislature selected by 18 regional caucuses.

In Washington today, Adnan Pachachi, present head of Iraq's U.S.-selected interim Governing Council, said after meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush that various options are under consideration for easing the way to self-rule in Iraq. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan met yesterday with U.S., British, and U.S.-appointed Iraqi officials. He says that he is considering a U.S. request to send a UN fact-finding mission to Iraq to assess if direct elections can be held before power is transferred in June.

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