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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House said Friday it would consider proposals "to refine or improve" its troubled plan for turning over power in Iraq but insisted that the United States is sticking with the framework of an agreement that calls for an unelected, temporary government by July 1.
The administration is trying to find ways to cope with Shiite demands that the U.S. plan for self-rule in Iraq be submitted directly to Iraqi voters. U.S. officials also were to discuss a possible new role for the United Nations in guiding elections.
The chief U.S. administrator in Baghdad, L. Paul Bremer III, was called home to confer with President Bush, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and other officials. He was to meet with the president before Bush flew to his weekend retreat at Camp David.
On Monday, Bremer is due to meet with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the U.S.-appointed Iraq governing council on the self-rule plan, which was hammered out Nov. 15.
"Obviously there are discussions about ways to refine or improve that agreement, but we're working within the framework of the Nov. 15 agreement," said White House press secretary Scott McClellan. "It spelled out a clear framework for moving forward to transfer sovereignty quickly to the Iraqi people."
Administration officials insist they will hold to the July 1 deadline but they are exploring ways to strike a compromise with a leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, and his supporters.
Al-Sistani is pressing for direct, popular elections, rather than the caucuses envisioned in the U.S. plan, as the way to create Iraq's new government. But McClellan said, "There are a lot of things you'd want to have in place for those elections that are not in place at this point."
The cleric also is insisting Iraqis should be permitted to vote on whether American peacekeeping troops remain in the country after transition.
Threatening the U.S. blueprint, an aide to the cleric said in Kuwait that if al-Sistani's advice was rejected, a Muslim edict would be issued to deny legitimacy to any council elected under the American plan. Even some Sunnis respect the Shiite al-Sistani, the aide, Mohammed Baqir al-Mehri, said.
Adnan Pachachi, the current Iraqi Governing Council president, said Thursday that he believes al-Sistani can be convinced that elections cannot be held right away. Still, Pachachi said, "We agreed that there is room for improvement, there are many, many ideas to make it more transparent and inclusive ... whereby the Iraqi people, in a very obvious way, can manifest their desires."
In light of al-Sistani's demands, U.S. officials said the Bush administration was reviewing its plan in ways to provide more direct voter participation by Iraqis. Al-Sistani has a reputation for being a moderate, but his stiff stance has cast doubt on whether the administration's plan can be retained.
"Obviously we are concerned about working with Iraqis," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We are concerned about public opinion. We want to satisfy the needs and demands of the Iraqi people."
In Basra, meanwhile, a crowd estimated by British soldiers at up to 30,000 people turned out in the streets of Iraq's second-largest city Thursday. Protesters chanted, "No, no to America, yes, yes to al-Sistani."
The United States wants regional caucuses -- whose members would be at least partially appointed -- to choose a new Iraqi parliament, which would then select an Iraqi administration. The Bush administration says security is too poor and voter records too incomplete for direct elections right now.
The clerics want direct elections, fearing the caucuses may be rigged to keep Shiites out of power. Al-Sistani and other clerics wield great influence among Iraq's Shiites, believed to make up about 60 percent of the country's 25 million people.
Bremer, in interviews this week with American television networks, said it was not clear whether Shiites were in the majority inside Iraq because Iraq had not had a census in nearly two decades. But he said majority rule must prevail in a democracy.
Boucher noted that Iraqis were able to protest in Iraq in a way they could not under Saddam Hussein. "The fact that there are demonstrations in Iraq is fundamentally a good thing," he said.
Rumsfeld said Tuesday it was too early to tell whether the deadline for transition would have to be changed.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)