- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2004

BAGHDAD — Tens of thousands of Shi’ite Muslims marched in Baghdad yesterday to demand early elections, the biggest public display of Shi’ite political power here since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime.

The protest aimed to send a message to the United Nations and the White House that Shi’ites will not accept a U.S. formula for transferring power by July 1 to a legislature selected in regional caucuses instead of by a direct vote as the Shi’ite clergy demands.

Hours after the march, U.S. and Iraqi officials asked the United Nations to send a team to study the prospect of holding elections in Iraq. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he wanted more details but acknowledged the issue was urgent. He said he hoped to make a speedy decision.

“On the elections, I have indicated that I … don’t believe there may be enough time between now and May to hold elections,” Mr. Annan told reporters. “But the team will go down and look into that further and report to me.”

The protesters, estimated by reporters at up to 100,000, carried posters of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shi’ite cleric, whose opposition to the U.S. plan threatens to delay the July 1 deadline for the end of the U.S.-led rule.

Ayatollah al-Sistani also wants an elected assembly to ratify security accords governing the presence of coalition troops after July 1 as well an interim constitution to take effect until a final charter can be drafted and ratified in 2005.

Shi’ites are believed to make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people. U.S. authorities cannot afford to alienate a community that generally has refrained from attacking coalition forces.

“The sons of the Iraqi people demand a political system based on direct elections and a constitution that realizes justice and equality for everyone,” Hashem al-Awad, a representative of Ayatollah al-Sistani, told the crowd. “Anything other than that will prompt people to have their own say.”

The security risks of holding elections were underscored by a bomb attack Sunday at a gate to the coalition’s headquarters compound. The Iraqi Health Ministry yesterday raised the death toll from the attack to 31 persons, with 121 wounded. Most of the victims were Iraqis.

Under an agreement promulgated on Nov. 15, Iraqis won’t have a direct vote until next year, when they choose delegates to draft a permanent constitution.

“We are demanding democracy. And that’s what America came to give us,” cleric Faras al-Tatrasani said. Another protester, Hassan al-Nouri, said the Americans “want to fill the assembly with people who support them. We shall march and march until they agree to an election.”

Scores of Iraqi policemen and hundreds of organizers ensured the march went peacefully. Volunteers walked ahead of the protesters, carefully examining the three-mile route for any roadside bombs.

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