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Top Iraqi Cleric Ready to Accept Small Delay in General Elections - 2004-02-20


Iraqi Shiite leader Ali al-Sistani says he would accept a short delay in general elections, as long as they are prepared according to a U.N. Security Council resolution. The top Iraqi Shi'ite cleric spoke in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel.

In a rare interview with the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, the Shi'ite leader, Ali al-Sistani, said he would accept a short delay in holding general elections in Iraq. The cleric told the magazine, the U.S. decision to transfer power to an interim authority selected in regional meetings was a delaying tactic. He said any non-elected authority taking over from the U.S.-led coalition must have only a limited authority.

The ayatollah had called for general elections before June 30, when the coalition's power over Iraq is to be transferred to the Iraqi people. But U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had sent a fact-finding delegation to Baghdad, said Thursday that general elections cannot take place before the June 30 deadline.

In the Der Spiegel interview, which is due to be published in full Saturday, Ayatollah al-Sistani said preparations for the elections must be completed shortly and, "according to a U.N. Security Council decision that would have to contain guarantees there will be no delays." He said the powers of the authority that takes over at the end of June must be strictly limited.

The 73-year-old Muslim cleric, who spent several years under house arrest while Saddam Hussein was in power, said he hopes Iraqi Shi'ites, who make up the majority of the country's population, would have decisive influence on their country's political future.

He said, because most Iraqis are Muslims, they would choose a constitution that, "respects Sharia, the Islamic system of law." He said such a system would respect the rights of religious minorities.

The United States says it has agreed with the Iraqi Governing Council that Iraqi basic laws must extend individual and political rights to all individuals.

The cleric said in the interview that, if the United States did not take his views into account, he would call for an intifada. He said posters in support of religious war have already been printed.

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