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Iraqi Shi'ites Rally Again for Early Elections

Tens of thousands of Iraq's Shi'ite Muslims rallied peacefully in Baghdad in support of early elections. Huge crowds of demonstrators marched to Baghdad's Mustan-sariyah University - waving flags and banners, chanting slogans, like, "Yes, to unity, yes, to elections", and loudly voicing their support for Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

They listened to fiery speeches on the need for early, free elections for a government to take over from the appointed Interim Governing Council, which works under the U.S.-led Coalition Authority. And there were warnings of popular resistance to come if that demand is not met.

The current transition formula, agreed to by U.S. officials and the Governing Council, calls for nationwide caucuses, or meetings, to choose a Transitional National Assembly, which in turn would appoint an interim government in June. That government would take over from the U.S. occupation authority and would run the country until full national elections late next year.

But Ayatollah al-Sistani, wants a directly elected government from the outset. He says anything else lacks legitimacy and has warned that the current formula will lead to continued instability.

Ayatollah al-Sistani can get people out onto the streets in support of his demands. He did so recently in the southern city of Basra, and now in Baghdad.

One participant, Haidar Ghatan, is a student at Mustan-siriya University.

"All Iraqi people came here to say 'Yes', for elections, 'No' for appointments," he said. "We are cultured people, we have a great civilization. We can elect the one who could represent us. We are an independent people, we say yes for freedom."

Fellow student, Hoda Ahmed, agrees.

"For the last 35 years, Saddam was the leader for Iraq and we all know the he was a criminal," she said. "So after we got rid of Saddam and his regime we think that we will take our freedom and say what we want to say. We ask for election - it is our right."

U.S. and Iraqi officials say the current security situation and lack of proper infrastructure make it impossible to hold early elections. They say the vote must be well planned and organized to be truly representative.

But, many of the demonstrators here do not believe that. They say Iraq is ready for elections, and they suspect the United States and members of the Governing Council are postponing the vote for their own benefit.

Shi'ites make up an estimated 60 percent of Iraq's overall population. They were harshly suppressed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-Muslim dominated government. They now fear a new, appointed provisional government will again cut them out of power. The Shi'ites are reveling in the freedom of speech allowed in the post-Saddam Iraq and they are determined to make their voices heard.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Administrator for Iraq, Paul Bremer and members of Iraq's Governing Council hold talks in New York with U.N. Secretary General Koffi Annan about a possible return of U.N. staff to the country and an international role in the transition process.

U.N. international staff was withdrawn after its Baghdad headquarters was bombed in August. Many of the demonstrators say they would welcome a greater U.N. role in Iraq.