In a boost for the Bush administration, Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, signaled his reluctant support Thursday for a U.S.-backed blueprint to create an Iraqi caretaker government until direct elections could be held.
However, the man considered among the most influential in Iraq also called for a U.N. guarantee that elections be held by the end of the year and seemed to warn he would tolerate no more delays. Shiites are the largest group in the country with more than 60 percent of the population.
The declaration from a powerful leader whose opposition has twice helped scuttle plans for transition of sovereignty helps open the way for Washington to end its formal occupation by June 30.
Current plans call for political power to be turned over on that date to a still-undetermined body of Iraqis who will serve as a provisional government until direct elections can be held. However, U.S. troops are expected to remain for at least another year or more under terms of an agreement to be negotiated with a new Iraqi administration.
From his base in the holy city of Najaf, the reclusive Sistani consistently has pushed for direct elections that would presumably lead to a government dominated by Iraq's Shiite majority. Shiite protesters routinely hoist the image of Sistani aloft in marches demanding immediate elections.
"It is vital to understand that this (provisional) government is going to be valid for a short period of time and that it should be replaced as soon as possible by a democratically elected and fully recognized" body, read a statement issued by Sistani's office in Najaf, south of Baghdad.
Panel may issue subpoena
WASHINGTON _ Faced with a refusal by the Bush administration to provide certain documents related to prewar intelligence on Iraq, the Senate intelligence committee voted in a closed session Thursday to move toward a subpoena, the New York Times reports, quoting unnamed senior congressional officials.
The bipartisan vote on the Republican-led panel sets a three-week deadline for a voluntary handover by the administration, after which the committee would employ unspecified "further action," which could only mean a subpoena, the officials said.