27 February 2004
By Justin Huggler in Baghdad
The spiritual leader of Iraq's Shia majority demanded assurances yesterday that direct elections will be held by the end of the year - in defiance of America's desire to delay them.
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said he would only accept the unelected interim government, which the US plans to hand power to on 30 June, if he is given assurances of direct elections by the United Nations.
His statement was seen as a way out of the impasse after he had condemned US plans to hand over to an unelected government. But it masked seething resentment among the Shia over the elections issue, and is still much sooner than the Americans want.
The American chief administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, has said he believes it will take 15 to 20 months to prepare for elections.
Long repressed under Saddam, the Shia majority believed his overthrow would finally give them their chance of power, and expected to win it in elections. But increasingly they see American reluctance to hold elections as dashing that hope.
Ayatollah Sistani's call brought vast crowds on to the streets. No government could rule without his approval. He backed down from his demand for immediate elections after a UN team reported it would be impossible before June.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd