100,000 Iraqi Shiites
rally to demand elections
By Seattle Times news
BAGHDAD, Iraq — As U.S., U.N. and Iraqi officials met in New York to discuss Iraq's future, an estimated 100,000 Shiite Muslims marched in Baghdad yesterday demanding prompt, direct elections.
The march, stretching for miles and hours through crowded Baghdad streets, was the largest demonstration by backers of 73-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the Shiite cleric leader who apparently has shoved the United States off its path to a deliberate, U.S.-approved selection of an interim legislature leading up to direct elections in 2005.
"First, we will demonstrate," said one of the participants in the march, Sheik Hassan Zaki, a cleric from Najaf. "After that, we will strike, not going to our jobs. After that, the doors of paradise will open for the martyrs."
Threats of possible confrontation with the Shiites, 60 percent of the Iraqi population and relatively docile since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government in April, took the United States to U.N. headquarters yesterday to ask Secretary-General Kofi Annan for help.
Several Governing Council members and L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, met with Annan seeking U.N. assistance in convincing al-Sistani and others that direct elections cannot be held any time soon.
Afterward, Annan indicated that he would send a team to Iraq to assess the
feasibility of early elections. Al-Sistani, who has refused to deal with the
Americans, has indicated he would value Annan's opinion.
"I don't believe there may be enough time between now and May to hold
elections, but the team will go down and look into that further and then report
to me," Annan said.
One idea the team could consider, Annan said, is basing voter registration on the U.N. humanitarian-aid-ration cards every Iraqi was issued during Saddam's rule. Bremer and the Governing Council have said inadequate registration information makes early direct elections impossible.
Bremer and the Iraqis sought to cast the talks in the best light, saying Annan had listened intently and that they were ready to provide the United Nations with as much security and technical support as possible.
According to a U.N. official at the meeting with Annan, the United States and its Iraqi allies pushed Annan to make a rapid assessment. "They pressed him very hard," said a U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "They were clear if he's not going to make a decision today, it's got to be pretty soon."
But it was unlikely Annan will make a decision before he hears back from a four-person U.N. team expected to leave by the end of the week to assess security conditions in Iraq. It might be the end of the month before that team reports its findings.
In the meantime, resistance to the U.S. plan has been stoked higher almost daily by Shiite clerics and politicians, who say they are speaking on behalf of their reclusive religious leader. "Al-Sistani has become chairman of the Governing Council," Barham Salih, prime minister of the part of northern Iraq ruled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, said recently. "He's the unelected authority."
Al-Sistani, a revered Iranian-born Islamic scholar, spent years under house arrest in Najaf in southern Iraq during Saddam's regime. He reportedly has not left his house since the regime's fall, and does not meet with the media. Through his speeches or spokesmen, the frail, white-haired cleric has not spelled out what kind of government he would like to see in Iraq, except that the nation's leaders must be chosen by Iraqis — "not those who came from abroad."
After meeting with al-Sistani recently, Adnan Pachachi, the current president of the Iraqi Governing Council, described him as a reasonable man willing to compromise. He came away feeling, he said, that al-Sistani might accept a process that is broader and more open than the one the United States has proposed.
But other Iraqis wonder whether al-Sistani has forsaken his religious tradition of quietism, or a reluctance for religious leaders to become drawn into politics and other worldly affairs.
They suggest two scenarios. In one, they say, he may be speaking out because he sees the need for long-oppressed Shiites to have a strong leader.
"I think that the Ayatollah is sincere, but I also think that he is a militant," said a high-ranking Iraqi official, who asked not to be named.
In the other scenario, they see Shiite politicians and parties using al-Sistani's voice and amplifying it for their own purposes. This would mean early elections that would favor the various Shiite parties because of their size and influence. For that reason, the Kurds, and the Sunni Muslims, each about 20 percent of the population, oppose direct elections.
A failure to accommodate al-Sistani could prompt him to declare the interim government illegitimate, triggering an uprising by Shiites that could be far bloodier than the ongoing insurgency led by minority Sunnis that has taken the lives of hundreds of U.S. service members.
Hashem al-Awad, a representative of al-Sistani, told the crowd yesterday: "The sons of the Iraqi people demand a political system based on direct elections and a constitution that realizes justice and equality for everyone. Anything other than that will prompt people to have their own say."
In response, the crowd chanted: "Yes, yes to elections! No, no to occupation!"
Of the protests, Bremer said in New York: "There are demonstrations all the time, some of them not always very friendly to the coalition, I might add, but they're peaceful and we welcome it."
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