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Shiites demand elections

Up to 30,000 protest a U.S.-backed formula to choose Iraq's new legislature.
AP   2004-01-16 03:36:26  

BASRA, IRAQ -- Shouting "no to America!" tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims took to the streets yesterday to protest a U.S.-backed formula for choosing Iraq's new legislature. The protest came as an aide to Iraq's foremost Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, warned he might issue a fatwa, or religious edict, rejecting a U.S.-backed government if his demands for direct elections are ignored.

The turnout in Basra, estimated by British soldiers at up to 30,000, was the biggest protest organized by Shiite clerics against the power transfer plan.

In other developments:

- Bank notes bearing Saddam Hussein's portrait became obsolete yesterday at the end of a three-month period to exchange them for the new Iraqi dinar ended.

- An anti-tank mine planted along a road in Tikrit destroyed a bus yesterday, killing two university students and the driver, the U.S. military said.

- U.S. troops killed seven Iraqi insurgents in three clashes near the central city of Baqouba, the U.S. military said. The clashes occurred Wednesday night.

The dispute over Iraqi elections involves a U.S. plan for regional caucuses to choose a new legislature, which would then select an Iraqi administration. There are claims security is too poor and voter records too incomplete for fair elections.

The clerics want direct elections, fearing the caucuses may be rigged to keep Shiites out of power.

The Americans are also wary of elections because of who might win. With Iraq in turmoil, Islamic radicals or Saddam's Baath party might dominate a vote because they have the best organizations.

Al-Sistani and other clerics wield vast influence among Iraq's Shiites.

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