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Thousands March in Basra, Demand Early Elections - 2004-01-15

Tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of the southern city of Basra Thursday in support of demands by a senior Shi'ite cleric for early, direct elections. At the same time, initial tests indicate that mortar shells found in southern Iraq last week do not contain chemical weapons.

Iraqis turned out in large numbers to show their support for demands by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for early elections. Some carried signs calling for a United Nations role in Iraq's political transition process.

The transition plan, worked out by U.S. officials and the Iraqi Governing Council in November, calls for nationwide caucuses, or meetings, to choose a Transitional National Assembly. The Assembly would, in turn, appoint an interim government in June, which would then run the country until nationwide elections late next year.

However, Ayatollah al-Sistani, wants a directly elected government from the outset. He says anything else would lack legitimacy. Last Sunday he warned that implementing the current transition plan will create further instability and unrest.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say the country is not yet prepared to hold nationwide elections. U.S. officials here say they welcome an open discussion on such issues and there are indications the current transition plan may be modified to take some of Ayatollah' al-Sistani's concerns into account.

U.S. and Iraqi officials are to hold talks with the United Nations next week on the possible return of U.N. staff to Iraq, and the organization's future role in the country.

On another issue, Danish military officials in Copenhagen say that initial tests conducted on some of the mortar shells found in southern Iraq show the shells do not contain chemical warfare agents. Last week Danish troops operating in southern Iraq found dozens of old mortar shells that were thought to possibly contain the liquid form of a poison known as blister gas.

Military officials say the shells were likely weapons left over from Iraq's war with Iran in the 1980's. The United States and Britain had cited the threat of illegal weapons of mass destruction, including a variety of chemical and biological weapons, as a main reason for launching the war against Iraq last year. But, so far no such weapons have been found.

Danish officials say the preliminary test results on the mortar shells will be sent to the United States for verification.