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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Thousands of Shiite Muslims marched through Baghdad on Tuesday clamoring for Saddam Hussein's execution in the latest show of strength by people oppressed for decades by the former dictator.
The 5,000-strong crowd was believed to be the first public demonstration in Iraq demanding death for Saddam since he was captured by U.S. forces Dec. 13.
The Pentagon has said Saddam is a prisoner of war and that designation will not keep the deposed Iraqi president from standing trial before an Iraqi tribunal.
"Saddam is a war criminal, not a POW! Execute Saddam!," the crowd chanted.
Shiites also staged a smaller protest of several hundred people in the southern city of Najaf.
Also, thousands marched in the Shiite holy city of Karbala to demand elections and to denounce the U.S. presence in Iraq.
The rallies were far smaller than one Monday in which nearly 100,000 Shiites marched in the Iraqi capital demanding early, direct elections -- rejecting a U.S. blueprint for handing over power on July 1 to an Iraqi provisional government through caucus-style elections.
Responding to the opposition, the United States asked the United Nations on Monday to send a team to Iraq to evaluate America's position that conditions are not ready for the direct elections demanded by influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.
"What we're trying to do is find a solution that will work for us and the majority of Iraqi people and provide a legitimate way" to chose a government, L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq, told CNN.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was considering the American request.
Shiites are believed to comprise 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people but Saddam's government favored the minority Sunni Muslim population. The regime executed thousands of Shiites, burying many in mass graves around the country.
"We call for the execution of Saddam the infidel, who killed our sons and kept them in mass graves," said Karima Hanoun, 40, speaking through a black veil at the demonstration.
Another demonstrator, 43-year-old Samira Hassan, said, "Every good Muslim woman and every honest human being wants Saddam to be executed. How can America make him a POW?"
Prisoner of war status under the Geneva Conventions grants Saddam certain rights, and many Iraqis fear that the status will shield him from a trial in his country. International Red Cross officials have said the conventions would not prevent the United States from handing Saddam over to an Iraqi tribunal, as long as a fair trial is guaranteed.
A statement by the demonstrators said Saddam should be tried by an Iraqi court for crimes against humanity.
"We emphasize our rejection and condemnation of the unjust American decision" to term him a prisoner of war, it said.
"Did America forget, or is (it) forgetting the screams of the children, orphans, and the tears of women who are crying at the graves of their sons and husbands?"
Demonstrators carried posters of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, the son of a cleric killed in 1999 by suspected Saddam agents, while marching to central Baghdad's Firdos Square.
Protesters also voiced objections to the ongoing discussions between Iraqi leaders about transforming Iraq into a federal state. Many Shiites and Sunnis fear that would break up Iraq and grant virtual freedom to the northern Kurds, another community oppressed by Saddam.
"There are problems this country is going through. This is a call from us (Shiites) for our rights," said al-Sheik Ghaith al-Khazaal, the head of al-Sadr's office in Baghdad.
Shiites have become increasingly vocal in recent weeks about their opposition to the U.S. plan for transferring power.
The U.S. plan calls for a provisional legislature to be selected by 18 regional caucuses, which in turn would pick a transitional government. Shiites fear it will deprive them of power.
The United States says there is not enough time to hold direct elections by the July 1 deadline because of the continuing violence and organizational hurdles such as a lack of voter rolls.
American officials and leaders of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council met with Annan on Monday seeking a solution to the deadlock. But no immediate solutions emerged as Annan assured he will consider sending a team to look into the election demand.
The secretary-general ordered all international staff to leave Iraq in October following two bombings at U.N. headquarters -- including one on Aug. 19 that killed top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 others.
The security risk was underscored by a devastating truck bomb Sunday that killed at least 31 people outside the coalition headquarters compound in Baghdad.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)