- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, who has insisted elections are necessary for a transfer of power on June 30, suggested he would accept a delay in voting but demanded a U.N. guarantee there will be no more postponements.

Still, many Shi’ites Muslims yesterday rejected a U.N. recommendation against early elections to shift power from the U.S.-led coalition to Iraqis, and insisted on a vote to create the next government.

With early elections apparently off the table and most Iraqi leaders opposed to the original U.S. plan to pick a provisional government before the June 30 deadline using regional caucuses, Iraq’s Governing Council and American administrators were trying to work out a new method.

The alternative preferred by the United States is to expand the 25-member Governing Council and hand it power on June 30 until elections can be held, according to Washington officials.

Though the coalition would hand over power, the United States expects to keep some 100,000 troops in Iraq for at least another two years.

Most council members are said to support the plan for an expanded council, but some remain in favor of caucuses, and others propose a “national conference” along the lines of Afghanistan’s loya jirga, said Salaheddine Muhammad Bahaaeddine, a Sunni Kurd member of the Governing Council. A few still say an early election is possible.

“We’re still discussing ideas regarding an alternative,” Mr. Bahaaeddine said. “There’s no agreement.”

Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, opposed the original U.S. plan and had demanded elections by June 30. After his criticism, members of the U.S.-picked Governing Council — which approved the plan in November — turned against the caucuses.

In comments made public after the U.N. announcement, Ayatollah al-Sistani said U.S. administrators’ “stalling” was the reason a vote by June 30 is not feasible.

In any case, he said, preparations to carry out elections must begin “at the nearest possible opportunity.”

He demanded “clear guarantees, such as a U.N. Security Council resolution, to reassure the Iraqi people that elections won’t be blocked again for the same pretexts being used now.”

Also, the body that takes power on June 30 should have limited powers, preventing it from taking “important decisions that effect the country’s future policies,” he said.

The comments were made in written responses to questions from the German magazine Der Spiegel, and Ayatollah al-Sistani’s office made the answers available in Arabic to the Associated Press yesterday. Ayatollah al-Sistani, 73, rarely speaks to the press and is thought to have remained at his home in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf for months.

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