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Shiite cleric ultimatum: Let us vote or we revolt

The most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric in Iraq is hoping the Bush administration will allow the country to hold direct elections because otherwise he may be forced to support a revolt, a spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani said Thursday.

Another aide said Sistani wants Iraqi experts _ and not just those from the United Nations _ to conclude that early elections are not feasible before he will drop his opposition to the U.S. political blueprint for Iraq.

Sistani recently discussed the showdown with the United States over his demand for elections, said Noor Aldin Alwaadh, a spokesman for Sistani's Baghdad office. Sistani "was clear about it: He wants direct elections," Alwaadh said.

"We are not the Taliban and we are not al-Qaida," Alwaadh said. "But if you want to hear me say it, fine. We will fight for our rights. We will fight, we will not sacrifice our independence, and we do not want occupying forces in our country."

Sistani is adamant that the U.S.-led occupation must meet a July 1 deadline to hand over sovereignty to an Iraqi government, said the other aide, Mohammed al-Yehia al-Mawsawi.

If U.N. and Iraqi experts conclude elections cannot be held before July 1, Sistani wants them to come up with other ways to make the transitional legislature as representative of the Iraqi people as possible, Mawsawi said.

Mawsawi's comments represented the reclusive Sistani's most forceful rejection yet of the Nov. 15 transition agreement.

In Baghdad, Dan Senor, the chief spokesman for U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer, said U.S. officials "would consider proposed clarifications" and "proposed elaborations" to their electoral plan.

But, he added, "we are not seriously considering any other options."

The maneuvering over Iraqi democracy came as an outburst of violence killed nine people, including four women headed to jobs at a U.S. military base and two American soldiers. South of the capital, the security chief of Spanish troops in Iraq was shot in the head during a raid.

Two Iraqi policemen were killed Thursday and three others were wounded when gunmen fired on a police checkpoint between Fallujah and Ramadi, two insurgency hotspots west of Baghdad.

The attack occurred along the same road where the day before, assailants firing from a speeding car killed four women and wounded six other people in a convoy headed for the U.S. military base at Habaniyah, 50 miles west of the capital.

Elsewhere, two U.S. soldiers were killed and another wounded during a rocket and mortar barrage late Wednesday on an American camp near Baqubah, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.

The deaths of the soldiers brought to 505 the number of American service members who have died since a U.S.-led coalition launched the Iraq war March 20.

However, Defense Department statistics show a drop in attacks on U.S. forces since November, when the insurgency was at its peak. After sustaining 70 deaths that month, the U.S. military withstood 25 in December, the month in which Hussein was captured, and 22 so far in January.

_ Information from Knight Ridder Newspapers, the Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.