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Emir calls for 1992 elections

Kuwait's emir on Sunday set a date of October 1992 for parliamentary elections. The opposition said 16 months was too long to wait, and demanded earlier balloting. In his decree setting the election date, the emir, Sheik Jaber Ahmed Sabah, also announced the reconvening next month of the National Council, a body the opposition says is unconstitutional.

The White House had no immediate comment on the emir's decree, spokesman John Herrick said Sunday. The United States had pressed the Kuwaiti government to hold elections early next year.

No one is sure how much support the opposition has among the 600,000 Kuwaitis, many of whom remain abroad. Only males whose families were citizens before 1921 can vote _ about 60,000 in total.

One of the opposition's calls for reform includes giving women the right to vote.

Foot-dragging on democratic reforms by the Kuwaiti government could prove embarrassing to the Bush administration, in light of critics' complaints that the U.S. military and other allied forces were deployed at great cost to restore what is essentially a feudal system.

The opposition, which had already announced plans for its first protest this week, quickly objected to the election date.

"The Sabahs don't want democracy, they want a facade of democracy with a docile parliament that will act as a rubber stamp," said Abdullah Nibari, a leader of the Kuwaiti Democratic Forum, one of seven opposition groups.

At least one opposition leader said the late date was meant to give the ruling family time to alter election laws.

"They want to change the election law to make a parliament they like," said Ahmed Bakr, a leader of the Islamic Caucus and a deputy from the parliament dissolved by the emir in 1986.

The parliament and the free press were suspended after both accused royal family members of financial mismanagement and inefficiency.

The decree, as translated by the official Kuwaiti News Agency, said the decision on the timing of the elections was in response to "conditions after the brutal Iraqi aggression."

Iraq seized the emirate Aug. 2 of last year, and allied forces drove Iraqi troops out in late February. During the occupation, the Iraqis plundered and terrorized Kuwait.

The government had said earlier it would hold the parliamentary vote sometime in 1992, but that it did not want to risk the possibility of a divisive election while the country is rebuilding.

The opposition, however, says the government does not want anyone else overseeing the granting of an estimated $14-billion in reconstruction contracts. It also says the royal family does not want to answer questions about its performance during the crisis.

"Having a parliament means you have the right to supervise the rebuilding of Kuwait. It may fail but it will be in the hands of the people. When there is no supervision, no real control, anything is possible," said Ahmed Sadoun, speaker of the dissolved parliament and a spokesman for the former deputies who form one of the opposition groups.

The opposition had previously announced plans for a silent prayer demonstration Tuesday to demand political reforms and to protest what it says is the government's lack of progress in getting the country back on track.

In a meeting last week with the emir, opposition leaders called for an end to martial law, which they said the parliament should vote on. The emir extended martial law for 30 days in a ruling last week.

At the meeting, opposition leaders also asked the emir not to reconvene the 75-member National Council. But the emir announced in Sunday's decree that the council would meet July 9 and play a role in planning the elections.

However, in an apparent move to placate the opposition, the decree said the council would not investigate the old parliament.

The National Council grew out of the fight between the government and the opposition parties in 1989-90, when pro-democracy activists demanded the re-convening of parliament.

The emir responded by creating the council, for which elections were held last year in which male Kuwaiti citizens voted to choose 50 members. Another 25 were appointed by the emir. The council has no legislative powers.