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Bush and Bremer meet as Iraqi Shi'ites demand poll
( 2004-01-16 14:00) (Agencies)

Iraq's U.S. Governor Paul Bremer meets President Bush in Washington Friday to discuss mounting tensions over a U.S. plan to hand sovereignty to Iraqis without first holding direct elections.

Tens of thousands of Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslims marched through Basra to chants of "No to America" Thursday and an aide to the Shi'ites' spiritual leader warned of wider protests if the long-oppressed group's demand for elections was not met.

Bremer will also hold talks with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan Monday in an effort to convince the United Nations to send staff back to Iraq to help with the transition process.

A U.S. plan for a handover of power by July has run into stiff opposition from Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a Kurdish drive for autonomy in the north and a warning of bloodshed from a leader of the minority Turkmen.

Bremer's talks at the White House would cover "the political dynamic (in Iraq), the ongoing discussions with Sistani and the Kurds," said a U.S. official.

Sistani has objected to the U.S. plan for a transitional assembly to be selected by regional caucuses. The assembly will choose an interim government for sovereignty by the end of June. Full elections are due to follow next year.


Bremer has said he respects Sistani but that there is not enough time to hold elections before a handover of sovereignty due to lack of electoral registers and polling laws.

U.S. officials say they are reviewing the planned regional caucuses to make the process as open as possible.

In Iraq's mainly Shi'ite south, tens of thousands protested in the country's British-controlled second city of Basra in support of Sistani's call for elections.

"If (Sistani) issues a fatwa (edict) all the Iraqi people will go out in protest marches and demonstrations against the (U.S.-led) coalition forces," an aide to the cleric, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Mohri, told Reuters in Kuwait.

Mohri earlier told Abu Dhabi television such a fatwa could undermine the legitimacy of any unelected Iraqi administration.

A Sistani edict could turn many Shi'ites against Washington at a time when U.S.-led forces are battling guerrillas in the minority Sunni Muslim areas north and west of Baghdad, heartland of support for captive former dictator Saddam Hussein.

U.S. officials and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council were trying to persuade Sistani to soften his stance.

Adding to tensions in Iraq, the country's Arabs and Turkmen bitterly oppose a plan by Kurds on the Governing Council for significant autonomy for a Kurdish area in the north.

"We will defend the unity of Iraq until the last moment and the last drop of our blood," said Sami Mohammed Donmez, deputy leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front coalition of parties.


The United States and the Governing Council are pushing for the United Nations to play a role in the political transition by overseeing the regional caucuses.

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a Shi'ite Muslim on the Governing Council, wrote to Annan asking the United Nations to study the possibility of early polls or find a compromise path to election of an assembly.

Annan said in reply it was technically impossible to organize elections by June. He stopped short of promising U.N. action in solving the dispute or endorsing the current process.

Bremer will be joined at Monday's talks with Annan by Governing Council members and representatives from the United States and Britain.

The U.N. is wary of returning to Iraq due to security issues and a reluctance to be seen rubber-stamping U.S. policy. In October, U.N. international staff were withdrawn after two suicide bombings at its offices, one of which killed 22 people.

In the latest violence, three Iraqis were killed and one injured when a land mine exploded under a bus in Tikrit, Saddam's mostly Sunni home town, the U.S. military said.

Washington blames the attacks on Saddam supporters and foreign Islamic militants.

U.S. officials said Washington was leaning toward reversing policy to allow French firms to bid for prime contracts on some of Iraq's U.S.-funded $18.6 billion reconstruction projects.

Washington was also considering allowing all countries to bid on the next contract round, one official said. Bush had previously ruled out nations such as France that opposed the Iraq war.

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