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Annan Position on Iraq Elections Could Spark Outcry Among Shi'ite Muslims - 2004-02-19

U.N. diplomats say Secretary-General Kofi Annan is going to support the view that it is not possible to hold free and fair elections in Iraq before the handover of sovereignty at the end of June. That could cause a public outcry among Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslims, who have been demanding early elections.

Shi'ite groups in Iraq say that delaying elections is not acceptable and some hard-liners are threatening to urge their followers to protest the decision. They reject the argument that Iraq does not have the ability to hold national elections by June because of poor communications, the lack of voter lists, continuing security threats and other factors.

Shi'ites make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population, and their religious leaders have considerable influence over them.

Imam Abbas Rhida Khadoum is a Shi'ite cleric at a mosque in central Baghdad.

"We are in touch with the people during prayer times at the mosque and we will tell them that the United Nations wants to deprive us of our legal right to direct elections," he said. "We will insist on this idea of elections, urge people to demand it and ask the U.N. to change their decision. That is the only way. We will ask the people to be unified behind this idea."

Iraq's leading Shi'ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged his followers last month to oppose the U.S. plan to hand power temporarily to a government chosen through regional meetings throughout the country, which would then plan elections for next year. Tens of thousands of Shi'ite's took to the streets in protest.

But Ayatollah Sistani met with a visiting U.N. fact-finding team last week to discuss the election issue, and has hinted that he might heed their advice. Most other Shi'ite groups have followed his lead so far on political affairs.

But the election issue is deeply rooted in years of oppression of the Shi'ites by Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party. Some estimates say tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi'ites were massacred by Saddam's forces over the years.

Imam Khadoum says Iraqi Shi'ites want evidence that those days are gone forever, and they do not want any more delays in exercising their political rights.

"During Saddam's time we suffered so much and the mass graves bear witness to what happened," said Mr. Khadoum. "If they keep depriving us like Saddam did, that means nothing has changed. We will not accept it. We have to [be liberated], we have to express ourselves and any delay of elections only benefits the terrorists. We do not want to give the terrorists any excuse to keep attacking innocent people."

The first widespread Shi'ite response to secretary-general Annan's decision could come Friday, when Imams across the country preach at midday prayers.