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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims marched peacefully in Baghdad on Monday to demand an elected government, as U.S. and Iraqi officials prepared to seek U.N. endorsement of American plans for transferring power in Iraq.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been reluctant to let the United Nations play a greater role in Iraq until he is convinced the country is safe.
Underscoring those dangers, 24 people were killed and about 120 were wounded Sunday when a suicide bomber blew up his pickup truck at a gate to the headquarters compound of the occupation authority in Baghdad, Iraq's Health Minister Khudayer Abbas said Monday.
Huge crowds of Iraqi Shiites, estimated by reporters at up to 100,000, marched about three miles to the University of al-Mustansariyah, where a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani delivered a speech he said was directed at Annan, the U.S.-led occupation authority and its Iraqi allies.
It was the biggest display of Shiite political power in Baghdad since Saddam Hussein's regime collapsed in April. It followed a similar demonstration on Thursday by some 30,000 Shiites in the southern city of Basra.
Al-Sistani, the country's most influential Shiite leader, has rejected a U.S. formula for transferring power through a provisional legislature selected by 18 regional caucuses, insisting on direct elections instead.
The legislature is supposed to appoint a transitional government, which will take over from the U.S.-led coalition administration July 1 before holding full elections in 2005.
"The sons of the Iraqi people demand a political system based on direct elections and a constitution that realizes justice and equality for everyone," al-Sistani's representative, Hashem al-Awad, said. "Anything other than that will prompt people to have their own say."
The crowd responded by chanting: "Yes, yes to elections! No, no to occupation!"
"What our religious leadership is doing today is at the heart of its mandate," cleric Faras al-Tatrasani, 36, said. "We are demanding democracy. And that's what America came to give us."
Two U.S. military helicopters hovered low over the demonstrators but otherwise there was no sign of American soldiers. Scores of armed Iraqi police stood by.
"This demonstration is a message to America that we want elections," said Naim Al-Saadi, a 60-year-old tribal chief.
Many marchers linked hands. Others carried portraits of al-Sistani and other Shiite leaders and waved computer printout banners saying, "Real democracy means real elections."
Shiites are believed to comprise 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people but were suppressed by Saddam's Sunni-dominated government. They fear the provisional legislature will cut them out of power again.
Meanwhile, an advance team of more than 30 Japanese soldiers crossed into southern Iraq on Monday in a controversial humanitarian mission marking Japan's most-dangerous overseas deployment since World War II.
The Japanese advance group, escorted by Dutch forces, moved overland from the U.S. military base Camp Virginia in the Kuwaiti desert to southern Iraq.
The Japanese contingent, which will grow to 1,000 by March, will help purify local water supplies, rebuild schools and provide medical care. They will carry arms for self-protection but their role will be noncombatant.
Also Monday, U.S. troops killed three Arab foreigners and seized weapons after a gunbattle at what Iraqi police described as a "terrorist safehouse" in a southeastern suburb of Baghdad, Iraqi officials said.
The two Yemenis and one Syrian were killed after U.S. forces went to the house before dawn and gave the Arabs 15 minutes to surrender, Iraqi police and local authorities said. When the Arabs refused, U.S. troops attacked, killing the three. A Yemeni woman was taken into custody, officials said.
Meanwhile, a top oil official told Dow Jones Newswires that Iraqi security foiled an alleged plot to attack Baghdad's Al-Doura oil refinery last week.
Three non-Iraqi Arabs were arrested with more than two tons of explosives a half mile from the refinery, located 12 miles south of Baghdad, the refinery's director-general, Dathar Al-Khashab, told the news agency.
Although Iraq possesses the world's second-largest petroleum reserves, the domestic market has faced severe shortages of gasoline, kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas because of poor infrastructure and attacks on pipelines. Al-Doura is running at half capacity because of pipeline sabotage.
The growing clamor for political rights by the majority Shiites is increasing pressure on the Bush administration and its Iraqi allies trying to control the guerrilla violence, blamed on Sunni minority insurgents loyal to Saddam.
An American soldier died Sunday of wounds suffered last week in a roadside bombing north of Samarra, according to the U.S. command. The latest American death is the 501st since the Iraq conflict began March 20.
U.S. and Iraqi Governing Council officials say it is not possible to hold free and fair elections before the July 1 deadline given the precarious security situation. U.S. officials hope Annan will support that view following his meeting Monday with chief U.S. administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, and members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.
Annan withdrew all international U.N. staff from Iraq after two bombings last year at U.N. headquarters and a spate of attacks on humanitarian targets.
Sunday's bombing may have been a signal to the world organization to stay out of Iraq and a warning to Iraqis against cooperating with occupation forces.
A separate bomb blast Sunday in the southern city of Karbala killed one person and wounded 17, including 10 Iraqis and seven Iranians, police and hospital officials said.
The coalition headquarters is one of the most heavily protected areas in Baghdad. U.S. soldiers guarding the gate usually stand about 20 yards from the road behind coils of barbed wire and concrete barriers.
Witnesses said that the driver of what the U.S. military described as a white Toyota pickup truck tried to bypass a line of Iraqi workers and a crowd of U.S. military vehicles at about 8 a.m., coming as close as possible to the entrance American troops call "Assassins' Gate."
The force of the blast, from a bomb containing 1,000 pounds of explosives, rattled windows more than a mile away. Most victims were Iraqis, but the wounded included three U.S. civilians and three American soldiers, the U.S. military said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told Australian television Monday that Saddam would not face trial until after the transfer of power to Iraqis.
"I think it best to be done after Iraqis have sovereignty in their own country after July 1," Powell told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television. "It will take at least that long to bring all the charges together and for the Iraqis to do it in a correct way."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)