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Iraqi Shi'ites reject demand by Sunnis to postpone vote

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim parties and the religious leadership headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani yesterday rejected a demand by other communities for a delay in nationwide elections scheduled for Jan. 30, in an escalating dispute that magnifies the country's ethnic and sectarian fault lines.

Parties representing Iraq's Sunni Muslim Arab minority, as well as ethnic Kurds and other secular groups, had called for a delay of up to six months in the vote for a National Assembly charged with appointing a government and drafting a constitution. The postponement would allow time to persuade boycotting groups to take part and to calm regions roiled by a tenacious insurgency.

But Shi'ite politicians quickly denounced the request, issuing a statement yesterday in the name of 42 parties insisting the elections be held on time. More importantly, the Shi'ite religious leadership in the sacred city of Najaf said the date could not be negotiated.

A delay "is unacceptable . . . and not open for discussion," said Mohammed Hussein Hakim, the son and spokesman of one of Iraq's most prominent clerics who said he was speaking on behalf of the religious leadership. "Everyone agreed on this date, and we cannot retreat from this position for any reason."

The statement was crucial: The two major Shi'ite groups -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa party -- will almost certainly follow the lead of Sistani, who has unparalleled influence among observant Shi'ites. US officials would be loath to confront the elderly cleric, who has outmaneuvered them in the past.

The violence frequently cited as the reason elections needed to be delayed continued across mostly in the regions north and west of Baghdad.

In the most dramatic clash, scores of Iraqi guerrillas with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades stormed the city hall and the police station in the town of Khalis, 40 miles north of Baghdad, before dawn. About two hours later, US and allied Iraqi forces drove off the insurgents, the military said. At least one National Guardsman was wounded and some insurgents were killed, the military said.

In Duluiyah, 25 miles northwest of Khalis, a soldier with the US Army's First Infantry Division was killed when guerrillas detonated a roadside mine near a convoy, the military said. The early-morning blast also damaged an M1 Abrams tank.

A car bomb detonated on the road to the Baghdad airport, damaging two armored US military buses. There were no casualties, but the road was closed for about 90 minutes, the military said.

There were feverish exchanges yesterday over the prospect of delaying the elections, reflecting the importance that nearly every party in Iraq places in the vote, a pivotal step on the way to ratifying a constitution and electing a government by the end of 2005.

Many of Iraq's Shi'ites, who account for perhaps 60 percent of the country's population, have embraced the election with zeal, seeing it as a chance for the long-repressed community to capture power that would reflect its numbers for the first time in decades. Last month, Sistani issued a religious edict requiring Shi'ites to vote, and at Baghdad's most revered Shi'ite shrine, banners are being used to mobilize the community. "Not having elections is a reward for terrorism," one sign read.

But influential groups within Iraq's Sunni minority, long the country's most powerful community, have declared a boycott of the vote. The most prominent is the Association of Muslim Scholars, which insists that a free and fair election is not possible as long as US troops occupy the country. Even Sunni groups that have vowed to take part, such as the Iraqi Islamic Party, worry their constituency will be too fearful to vote in areas where militant groups have threatened voters and candidates.

Iraq's Kurdish minority, virtually independent in its northern enclave, also supports a delay because Kurds would benefit from more balanced representation of ethnic groups in parliament.

While the complexities of Iraqi politics extend beyond sectarian and ethnic issues, supporters and opponents of a delay have broken down largely along those lines. Many Iraqis worry, even Shi'ites, that a Sunni boycott would diminish the legitimacy of the 275-member National Assembly, and of the constitution and the government it will appoint.

"We have to choose between holding an incomplete, incorrect election and bear the huge consequences that will follow, or try to postpone them and win time to discuss the process," said Adnan Pachachi, a senior Sunni politician who helped request the delay. "We're choosing the best of the worst choices."

US officials will resist a delay in the election because they fear setting a precedent for further postponements. A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, also said it was doubtful that groups such as the Association of Muslim Clerics would reconsider their boycott before US forces withdrew. Nor were there assurances, the diplomat said, that the insurgency would be less persistent by spring or summer.

In public statements, the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has endorsed holding the elections on time, a point reiterated over the past two weeks by Allawi and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

Pachachi said that Allawi's party had joined the request for a delay. Allawi's spokesman, Thaer Naquib, denied this and said the government "was committed" to the Jan. 30 date. "The elections will be held on time," he said.

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