Tens of thousands of protesters marched through Basra yesterday to demand a general election, as an aide to Iraq's most senior Shia cleric warned that he may issue a fatwa against the proposed new government.
The demonstration in the southern Iraqi city was a rare show of strength in support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's call for direct elections to choose a new government, and comes as a blow to Washington's plans for a smooth handover of power.
Last night one of the cleric's aides warned that if the US administrator in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, does not accept his demand, Ayatollah Sistani may issue a ruling telling Iraq's Shia majority not to accept the new government, which is due to take power by July.
"If Bremer rejects Ayatollah Sistani's opinion, he would issue a fatwa depriving the US-appointed council of its legitimacy," Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Mohri told Abu Dhabi television. "After this, the Iraqi people will not obey this council. This US plan is not in line with Sistani's views."
In Basra, huge crowds walked through the streets, some arm in arm, chanting "No to America" and carrying portraits of Ayatollah Sistani. The protest will come as another uncomfortable warning to the US that, for the second time since the war, it may need to rework its political program for Iraq. Mr Bremer is flying to Washington for urgent consultations.
Large numbers of students and tribesmen were among the crowd, which was led through the streets by several Shia clerics. The British military, which controls Basra and most of southern Iraq, kept a low profile. British soldiers found and defused a large artillery shell, which had been planted as a roadside bomb.
Ayatollah Sistani, a moderate and usually apolitical cleric, has issued a series of statements in the past week criticizing an American plan, agreed last November by the Iraqi governing council, to hold indirect elections to select a new government by July. US officials say that since security is still a problem in many areas, and there is no accurate electoral roll, organizing a general election is too difficult at this stage.
Last June he criticized an earlier American political program as "fundamentally unacceptable", and the administration in Baghdad was forced to rethink its approach. Mr Bremer flew to Washington yesterday for further talks with the Bush administration.
Last November's agreement envisages a complex system of provisional caucuses. A committee of 15 Iraqis appointed in each province will select a local caucus which will in turn elect representatives to a new parliament by May. A nationwide general election will not be held until the end of 2005.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004