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Iraqi Council Head Demands Direct Vote for New Legislature

Iraqi Council Head Demands Direct Vote for New Legislature

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- The head of the Iraqi Governing Council renewed his demand Wednesday that a proposed transitional legislature be elected by Iraqi voters, a move opposed by U.S. occupation officials.

Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite Muslim cleric who has recently been a vocal critic of American plans for restoring sovereignty to Iraqis, holds the rotating presidency of the U.S.-appointed council for the month of December.

His assumption of the post could point to rockier relations with American administrators. It also highlights the transformation of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Iraq's Shiite majority were oppressed under Saddam's regime, particularly religious leaders. Al-Hakim holds clerical status -- unlike Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shiite who held the presidency earlier this year.

A Nov. 15 agreement between the council and L. Paul Bremer, the chief U.S. administrator calls for caucuses in Iraq's 18 provinces to select the transitional legislature.

But al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has insisted on a vote.

"The assembly will be elected by the Iraqi people. This is what we are trying to achieve and that's what, God willing, will happen," he said Wednesday.

Under the U.S. plan agreed to by the 25-member council, the legislature will elect a transitional government with full sovereign powers by July 1. Iraqis voters would then elect members of a constituent assembly in elections that would be held by March 15, 2005. They go back to ballot boxes before the end of that year to ratify a new constitution and elect a government that would take over from the transitional administration.

The coalition believes that a rushed general election could hurt Iraq's democratization process and may be hijacked by extremist Muslim groups and members of Saddam's now-banned Baath party. Coalition officials claim that a majority of council members support that plan.

The Bush administration, faced with an escalating guerrilla war and mounting casualties among the occupation forces, sees the installation of a sovereign Iraqi government as a way to help defuse the rebellion.

Washington also considers that Shiite participation is essential for the success of any political process, since Shiites are believed to make up 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.

But al-Hakim has been seeking to garner support for his stance among the influential Shiite religious leadership. Last week, he met with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini, who let it be known he has rerservations about the U.S. plan, and on Tuesday another grand ayatollah, Mohammed Taqi al-Modaresi, also said the legislature should be elected.

Meanwhile, a massive U.S. raid in a northern Iraqi village led to the arrests of 34 people and the confiscation of dozens of guns, the American military said Wednesday. Residents accused soldiers of excessive force.

Initial reports said troops were hunting for Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a top Saddam ally who is considered a key planner of recent attacks. U.S. officials have posted a $10 million bounty for al-Douri. They suspect he could also be working with the al-Qaida-linked militant group Ansar al-Islam.

Lt. Col. William Schafer said that although U.S. forces have been searching for al-Douri, "we did not come here specifically searching for him."

The raid occurred in Hawija, 155 miles north of Baghdad. The U.S. military said it detained 34 people and confiscated 70 small arms along with six rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

However, many villagers said the Americans had fired randomly at people in the area.

Alaa Hosein, a 22-year old farmer interviewed in Kirkuk hospital, said he and his cousin were returning from their fields when soldiers opened fire. Hosein was hit in the right leg, while his cousin was critically injured in the head.

"They came to make trouble, not to restore security," Hosein said from his hospital bed.

South of Kirkuk, insurgents ambushed a convoy of civilian contractors near Samarra, the military said. Two of the occupants were slightly injured when a roadside bomb went off near their vehicle. Samarra was the scene of a weekend battle between Americans and Iraqis.

At the town of Najaf, 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Baghdad, Honduran troops serving with the coalition were attacked with mortar fire early Wednesday, the military said. No damage was caused and there were no casualties among the 360 Honduran soldiers on the base.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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