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Cleric urges Iraqis to let U.N. study election

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Iraqi police officer Zaid Al Hashimi, left, keeps the ball away from Spec. Damian Tucker of the 519th Military Police Battalion.

Iraqi police officer Zaid Al Hashimi, left, keeps the ball away from Spec. Damian Tucker of the 519th Military Police Battalion.

Julie Jacobson, Associated Press

NAJAF, Iraq — The country's most influential Shiite cleric asked his followers on Friday to suspend demonstrations demanding direct elections even as a prominent Iraqi leader joined the cleric's call for them.

The cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, asked his followers to wait while the United Nations decided whether to send a team to Iraq to weigh whether early direct elections were possible.

The growing chorus of Iraqi calls for direct elections signaled increasing trouble for plans by the American occupation authorities to turn over sovereignty to Iraqi representatives in June without a popular vote.

Al-Sistani, who lives off a narrow alleyway here in Najaf, delivered his message through a representative at a mosque in the nearby holy city of Karbala.

Last Monday, before American and Iraqi officials met at the United Nations to discuss al-Sistani's demands for a direct election, up to 100,000 people marched through central Baghdad in support of the cleric.

It was the largest demonstration in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's government was ousted last April, and it came as Shiite religious leaders were beginning to realize their enormous influence on American policy here.

American officials still insist they will hold a complex series of caucus-style elections in Iraq's 18 provinces to select the members of the transitional assembly, though they have said they are willing to make some changes to the electoral mechanisms. L. Paul Bremer, the top American administrator in Iraq, has repeatedly said there is not enough time to organize direct elections in the next several months.

But one of the Bush administration's closest allies on the Iraqi Governing Council, Ahmad Chalabi, contested that view on Friday in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"Elections are possible," he said. "Seek to make them possible and they will be possible."

Chalabi, who has had enormous backing from the Pentagon, added that the caucus-style elections proposed by American officials were a "surefire way to have instability" because they would result in a transitional assembly lacking legitimacy.

American and U.N. officials who refused to be identified publicly expressed irritation at Chalabi's comments. They charged that his true agenda was to feed the current impasse over the transition to self-rule in the hope that the United States would eventually empower the Iraqi Governing Council, on which he serves.

Chalabi joins other Shiite members of the Governing Council in calling for direct elections. Ibrahim al-Jafari, the head of the Dawa Islamic Party, said on Wednesday that he favored direct elections. Mowaffak al-Rubaie, an independent member of the council, said in an interview on Thursday that the caucus-style elections would result in an illegitimate government.

Adnan Pachachi, the current head of the council and a Sunni Arab, has said he does not think quick direct elections are possible. He has reportedly asked the Bush administration to reach a compromise by expanding the Governing Council to 125 members from 25 and turning it into an interim legislature.

Direct elections would favor Shiite politicians, since Shiites make up more than 60 percent of the population in Iraq.

Al-Sistani has said that if the United Nations sent a team of experts to assess whether elections could be organized quickly, he would listen seriously to their opinions. That helps explain why he has called for calm as Kofi Annan, the U.N. secretary-general, is weighing whether to send such a mission here.

"This issue concerns all the sects that comprise the Iraqi people," said Abdul-Mehdi al-Karbali, a representative of al-Sistani, said Friday at a mosque in Karbala, according to The Associated Press. "Sunnis, Christians and all other sects are urged to support the religious order in its position, so that the occupation forces will not adopt any steps that serve their interests and that do not serve the interests of the Iraqi people."

Protests can be held later if needed, he said, adding that the most senior clerics in Iraq were supporting a halt to demonstrations.

In an interview in Najaf on Friday, the son of one of those clerics said that getting a U.N. electoral assessment team here was absolutely crucial.

"Who will supply legitimacy to the new government?" said Muhammad Hussein al-Hakim, the son and spokesman of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Said al-Hakim. "I think you will agree with me when I say the U.N. or the rule of the U.N."

In Baghdad, a two-person team consisting of a military adviser and a security coordinator arrived on Friday to assess safety conditions on the ground for U.N. Iraqi staff and for the eventual return of its international workers, U.N. officials said. Their presence here was unrelated to Annan's imminent decision on whether to send an electoral assessment team, a spokesman said. He added that a separate security team would have to prepare the ground for that mission.

U.S. diplomats at the United Nations expressed frustration at the delay in moving ahead on sending experts to assess the prospects for elections. "The U.N. said they wanted to have a significant role in the country, and now that we have offered them one, they seem to be dragging their feet," a senior American official said.

Brahimi, who has just returned from two years as the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, was invited to Washington on Thursday where President Bush joined in the campaign to enlist him for Iraq, according to a senior U.N. diplomat. Brahimi also met with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and her aide on Iraq, Robert Blackwell. Brahimi told them he was not available and intended to take time off before taking up his new position as Annan's special adviser on peace and security, the diplomat said.

In late August, a suicide truck bomb exploded at the headquarters of the United Nations in Baghdad, killing 22 people. By October, the United Nations had withdrawn all its foreign workers, and Annan has said the tenuous security situation is the main reason the United Nations is reluctant to return.

A bomb planted at a branch office of the Iraqi Communist Party exploded in Baghdad on Thursday, destroying much of the office and killing two people.

A total of 11 people, including two American soldiers, were killed in various attacks on Thursday, continuing a deadly string of assaults that began with a suicide car bombing at the American occupation headquarters on Sunday.