Shiite Leaders Urge Faster Elections in Iraq

The president of the U.S.-picked Iraqi Governing Council (search) said Thursday that he agrees with a top Shiite Muslim leader's objections to the U.S.-backed plan for transferring power to Iraqis by next summer.

The cleric's demands for average Iraqis to have a direct role in selecting a transitional legislature will be discussed by the council and the U.S.-led coalition, said council president Jalal Talabani (search), who is an ethnic Kurd and a Sunni Muslim.

After talking with Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani (search), Talabani said: "I see the views of his grace as logical and reasonable, and I agree with them."

"The agreement remains, but we may add an attachment that has additional clauses," he added. "The agreement can evolve."

As one of the most influential Shiite religious leaders, Al-Sistani could disrupt American efforts for a smooth transition in power. Shiites make up more than 60 percent of Iraq's population, and it is unlikely any political program could win broad public acceptance without support from Shiite clerics.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad declined to comment, saying U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer (search) had no wish "to negotiate in public." Speaking on condition of anonymity, the spokesman said the plan is a "framework" for which "a lot of difficult details must still be worked out."

Shiite leaders are eager to quickly translate their community's position as Iraq's majority into formal political power. Shiites have been marginalized for generations by Sunni Muslims, who dominated Iraq during Ottoman rule, British colonialism and then Saddam Hussein's reign.

Talabani, who signed the transition plan as head of the Governing Council on Nov. 15, traveled to this holy city to meet with al-Sistani after the cleric's views were reported by a Shiite council member, Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim.

Al-Hakim told reporters Wednesday that al-Sistani expressed "deep concern over real loopholes" in the power-transfer plan. Unless those objections are dealt with, "the process will be deficient and fail to meet the expectations of the people of Iraq," al-Hakim said.

He said that one of al-Sistani's main demands is for voters to directly elect a transitional national legislature.

The power-shifting plan calls for the assembly to elect a provisional government that would take power by July 1. A general election would be held no later than March 15, 2005, and a permanent constitution be drafted and adopted before the end of that year.

Under the plan adopted Nov. 15, members of the transitional assembly would be chosen by regional caucuses attended by politicians and selected scholars, professionals, tribal chiefs, legal experts and other prominent people.

The regional caucuses would have 15-member organizing committees, five of them named by the Governing Council, five by provincial governments and one each by the five largest local councils in any province. Like the Governing Council, most provincial governments and local councils have been handpicked by the U.S.-led coalition or local American commanders.

"There are many reservations about those provincial governments and local councils, as they are not democratically elected," Talabani said.

Al-Hakim said al-Sistani also wants an interim constitution to be drafted by the Governing Council to guarantee Iraq's "Islamic identity."

Talabani said a reference to Islam has been restored, but gave no details.