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US may shift Iraq handover plans to appease cleric
( 2004-01-17 17:24) (Agencies)

The United States is willing to adjust plans for handing over power in Iraq to appease the country's top Shi'ite cleric but, officials said, is unlikely to meet his key demand for elections this year.

The U.S. governor of Iraq, Paul Bremer, announced the shift after talks with U.S. President Bush Friday but stressed that the June 30 deadline for transferring power to an Iraqi government would not be extended.

A team of Japanese soldiers on their way to Iraq, Tokyo's most controversial military deployment since World War II, landed in Kuwait Saturday and are expected to move into Iraq next week.

"We are making history today. It is the first time that we have Japanese troops going into a combat zone since World War II," U.S. forces spokesman Captain Randall Baucom told reporters after the Japanese troops' plane arrived in Kuwait.

Bremer expressed "doubts" about Shi'ite demands for direct elections before the transfer of power, but added: "These are questions that, obviously, need to be looked at."

He said Washington may alter the way a transitional Iraqi assembly is selected and make other "clarifications," but gave few details.

Bremer's comments are unlikely to impress Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, one of the most revered men in Iraq, who has demanded that the transitional assembly be elected, instead of being chosen by regional caucuses under current U.S. plans.

Aides have said he could issue a fatwa, or edict, banning his followers from cooperating with the U.S. authority in Iraq if his demands were not met.

Shi'ite Muslims are a majority in Iraq and any such move would be a huge setback for Washington, which is battling Saddam Hussein loyalists in areas dominated by his minority Sunni sect.

"We're intending to stick to the timeline that we've laid out" -- for the transfer of power on June 30 and direct elections in 2005, Bremer told reporters.


But senior administration officials said they were open to changes -- within that timeline -- to address Iraqi concerns. "We are willing to discuss refinements or improvements," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Bremer added "We are prepared to see clarifications in the process, ... the ways in which the selection of the transitional assembly is carried forward."

That appeared to indicate changes in the way the caucuses are chosen, rather than holding elections, which Washington has said is difficult because of the lack of a census and electoral laws.

Bremer will meet U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan Monday and is expected to press him to send a U.N. team to Iraq to convince Shi'ites that direct elections are not feasible or suggest a workable compromise.

"We have doubts -- as does the secretary-general -- that elections can in fact be called in the time frame of the return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people on June 30," Bremer said.

Annan withdrew all international staff from Iraq in October after attacks on relief workers and the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad on Aug. 19 that killed 22 people, including the mission chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello.

But Annan, who will also meet representatives from Iraq's U.S.-appointed governing council Monday, has also wanted the U.N. role in Iraq clarified, clearly wanting to avoid merely rubber-stamping U.S. policy.

Sistani, a reclusive cleric who lives in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf south of Baghdad, has refused to meet any U.S. official to discuss the transfer of power. He has met members of the governing council, but has not budged from his demand for elections.

Friday, as he met tribal chiefs to discuss his opposition to the U.S. plan, his followers expressed support for his demands after weekly prayers at the gold tombed shrine to Imam Ali, the most revered figure in the Shi'ite sect.

"It's natural to have a Shi'ite government because we are the majority," said Turk Abbas, an elderly blanket seller.

Shi'ites, who make up about 15 percent of the world's one billion Muslims, have not been in power in an Arab nation for over 800 years.

Saddam sidelined Shi'ites, and cracked down brutally on an uprising in the Shi'ite heartland of South Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War.

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