NAJAF, Iraq - Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric grudgingly accepted yesterday the United Nations' assessment that his country cannot elect a new government before the United States returns sovereignty to Iraqis, but he served notice that he would not tolerate many more delays.
A day after U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced that a team of election experts had deemed Iraq too unstable to hold an election before the June 30 handover, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani chastised the U.S.-led occupation for failing to "prepare for elections in these past months."
Call for guarantees
The 73-year-old cleric, who had called for direct elections to select the first government for the new Iraq, issued a statement demanding "clear guarantees, such as a U.N. Security Council resolution, to assure the Iraqi people that elections won't be blocked again for the same pretexts being used now."
Hundreds of his followers packed the cramped streets around the ayatollah's modest home near the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine to criticize the U.N. assessment and express their support for the religious leader.
"We are the soldiers for him," said Sayeed Khadim al-Mousawan, a 42-year-old hospital administrator who made the two-hour trip from Baghdad. "We will die for him if they don't give him his elections. We will die for our country."
Al-Sistani has never hinted that he would support violence, so his followers' seemingly spontaneous and fiery rhetoric said less about any likelihood of bloodshed than it did about their unwavering devotion.
The man in power
Indeed, their furious allegiance suggests that it might be up to al-Sistani - not the United States or the United Nations - to end the election debate at the time of his choosing. Thus far, it is clear he isn't ready to do so.
"No for nominating! Yes for Elections," read one brightly colored banner flapping above the protesters. "Human rights cannot be granted; they can only be deprived," read another. "We will not be subservient," declared yet another.
Najaf's frustration blared from a loudspeaker outside the Imam Ali shrine, playing to the rapt attention of thousands gathered beneath.
"We should have elections within the next four months; otherwise it will be chaos," announced the prayer leader, in a rebuke to Annan's recommendation. "The idea is elections. When, where and how, that is up to the United Nations."
The United States had suggested a complex system of caucuses to nominate the members of Iraq's interim government, which would shepherd the country until full elections in 2005. But al-Sistani and many other leaders denounced that plan, calling for elections as soon as feasible.
Away from the demonstration, an aide to one of Najaf's other senior clerics said Shiites would probably accept the U.N.-recommended delay in holding elections but they would not sit quiet indefinitely.
"If elections aren't possible within the next three or four months, there should be some assurance of elections in the immediate future, and we should see preparation for that," said Mohammed Hussein al-Hakeem, spokesman for Ayatollah As-Sayed Muhammed Saeed al-Hakeem.
In the months since al-Sistani unexpectedly announced his preference for direct elections for Iraq's political path to sovereignty, the city once known best as the final resting place of the Shiite imam Hussein has acquired the unlikely reputation of a town of political junkies.
Change in tone
The walls that once carried memorial messages to the fallen icons of Shiite Islam now carry painted pleas for the right to vote and observations on the failings of indirect representation. Young tea vendors barely raise an eyebrow when asked about the minutiae of the latest election proposal.
"We want the right to elect an Islamic government," said Majid Abbas Ali, a 22-year-old who sells cotton burial shrouds from a stand on the street. "We are Shias, and we should have our own government. Where is the democracy now?"
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Killed in Iraq
As of yesterday, 544 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations, and 2,685 U.S. service members have been wounded. Since May 1, when President Bush declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended, 406 U.S. soldiers have died.
A U.S. soldier died yesterday in a traffic accident near Balad, Iraq. Two U.S. soldiers were killed Thursday in a roadside bombing near Khaldiyah, 50 miles west of Baghdad.
Army Spc. Christopher Taylor, 25, Daphne, Ala.; killed Monday in Baghdad when a roadside bomb hit his vehicle; assigned to the 1st Armored Division, 1165th Military Police Company, Fairhope, La.
- Associated Press