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Iraqis protest slow reconstruction pace
( 2004-01-12 11:18) (Agencies)

Impatience with Iraq's occupying forces boiled over Sunday as unemployed Iraqis pelted British troops with stones and a top Shiite Muslim cleric demanded the country's next parliament be elected ! a position at odds with American plans.

Also Sunday, a U.S.-backed Iraqi politician said an ongoing purge of members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party had pushed 28,000 Iraqis from their jobs, with a similar number expected to follow.

In the southern city of Amarah, waves of protesters ! some armed with sticks and shovels ! rushed British troops guarding the city hall, a day after clashes here killed six protesters and wounded at least 11.

The British drove the crowd back from the compound, which also houses the U.S.-led occupation force and the 1st Battalion of Britain's Light Infantry. Homemade bombs exploded during the melee, but not injuries were reported.

"We are trying to permit a peaceful protest but prevent loss of life or damage to property," said British Maj. Johnny Bowron.

Tensions in Amarah, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, erupted Saturday after hundreds of Iraqis gathered to complain that authorities had not kept a promise to give them jobs. On Sunday, demonstrators said they were looking to avenge those killed Saturday.

Demonstrators sent a representative to talk to British and Iraqi officials, who promised them 8,000 jobs, according to witnesses. But protesters said a similar promise made weeks before had not been fulfilled.

Prior to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Saddam's security forces were the biggest employer in this city of 400,000.

The U.S. Department of Defense raised the American death toll since the start of the war to 495 on Sunday after the death of a 23-year-old soldier from a heart attack in Qatar.

Meanwhile, Iraq's top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, demanded the country's next parliament be elected and not chosen by local caucuses, an idea at odds with U.S. plans for returning sovereignty to the Iraqis by July 1.

Al-Sistani, whose views are highly influential among Iraq's Shiite majority, said Sunday the current U.S. plan to have regional caucuses select members of a provisional national assembly would give birth to an illegitimate Iraqi government.

"This will, in turn, give rise to new problems and the political and security situation will deteriorate," al-Sistani said in a statement released by his office in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, south of Baghdad.

Al-Sistani demanded the assembly be directly elected, saying credible elections could be held in Iraq within months.

Al-Sistani also balked at U.S. plans to seek quick approval for the continued occupation of Iraq through its hand-picked Governing Council. The ayatollah said only an elected government could sign off on the presence of U.S. troops beyond July 1.

Al-Sistani's opposition forced the Americans to change their transition plans once already. Participation by Shiites ! who make up 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people ! is essential to the success of the transition.

But drafting a new plan to accommodate his views would make Washington look like it is allowing its Iraq policies to be held hostage to the wishes of one man. It also would further anger Iraq's minority Sunnis, who had dominated politics in Iraq for decades and are bristling at the attention given now to the Shiites they traditionally oppressed.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands more former high-level Baathists are set to lose their jobs in ongoing purges, said Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi, a favorite of the Pentagon who heads a committee aimed at ridding Iraq of the influence of Saddam's party.

U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer dissolved and banned the Baath party in May, a month after U.S. forces swept into Baghdad to remove Saddam from power and end 35 years of the party's rule.

In the northern city of Mosul on Sunday, U.S. soldiers arrested four men accused of working for the top fugitive in Iraq as rebel paymasters.

The four were paying insurgents to attack U.S. troops on behalf of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, one of Saddam's former chief lieutenants, said Maj. Trey Cate, spokesman for the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division.

British and Danish troops staged raids in the southern town of Shuwayj and arrested six people, including a former leader of the Baath party who is accused of heading a guerrilla cell. The Danish army announced the arrests but did not identify the man.

Also Sunday, authorities said the body of an Iraqi working with the U.S.-led coalition was found in the southern city of Basra, along with the corpse of another man not associated with the coalition. Insurgents opposed to the U.S.-led occupation have targeted soldiers as well as civilians and Iraqi police working with the occupiers.

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