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Top Iraqi Shi'ite Cleric Rejects Appointed Interim Government - 2004-01-11

Iraq's most influential Shi'ite cleric has again rejected a U.S.-backed plan to set up a provisional post-war government without elections.

The rejection came Sunday, after officials from the U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council went to the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf to persuade Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to back the council blueprint.

The plan calls for regional caucuses to choose a transitional Iraqi assembly by the first of June. The assembly would then select an interim government that would serve until elections in 2005.

In November, the Ayatollah first announced opposition to U.S.-backed plans. Today, he said the plan for a council-appointed transitional government "can not represent Iraqis in the ideal manner."

The cleric wants the transitional assembly directly elected, so that any new deals to keep U.S. troops in Iraq will be negotiated by elected officials rather than those effectively appointed by Washington.

For their part, coalition authorities have ruled out early general elections, because of Iraq's unpredictable security situation, and because elections would first require a national census to determine eligible voters.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Iraqis demanding jobs staged new protests today in the southern city of Amara, where at least five demonstrators died Saturday during clashes with police and British soldiers. Eleven people also were wounded Saturday, but no casualties were reported during today's protest.