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Cleric calls for halt in protests

Published Aug. 27, 2005

The country's most influential Shiite cleric asked his followers on Friday to suspend demonstrations demanding direct elections even as a prominent Iraqi leader joined the cleric's call for them.

The cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, asked his followers to wait while the United Nations decided whether to send a team to Iraq to weigh whether early direct elections were possible.

The growing chorus of Iraqi calls for direct elections signaled increasing trouble for plans by the American occupation authorities to turn over sovereignty to Iraqi representatives in June without a popular vote.

Sistani delivered his message through a representative at a mosque in nearby Karbala.

Last Monday, before American and Iraqi officials met at the United Nations to discuss Sistani's demands for a direct election, up to 100,000 people marched through central Baghdad in support of the cleric.

It was the largest demonstration in Iraq since Saddam Hussein's government was ousted in April, and it came as Shiite religious leaders were beginning to realize their enormous influence on American policy.

American officials insist they will hold a complex series of caucus-style elections in Iraq's 18 provinces to select the members of the transitional assembly, though they have said they are willing to make changes to the electoral mechanisms. L. Paul Bremer, the top American administrator in Iraq, has repeatedly said there is not enough time to organize direct elections in the next several months.

But one of the Bush administration's closest allies on the Iraqi Governing Council, Ahmad Chalabi, contested that view on Friday in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"Elections are possible," he said. "Seek to make them possible and they will be possible."

Chalabi, who has had enormous backing from the Pentagon, said the caucus-style elections proposed by American officials were a "surefire way to have instability" because they would result in a transitional assembly lacking legitimacy. Adnan Pachachi, head of the Iraqi Governing Council and a Sunni Arab, has said he does not think quick direct elections are possible.