SULAIMANIYAH, IRAQ -- A prominent Shia Muslim cleric is proposing a delay in Iraq's election, in the first Shia attempt to mend the religious rift that has developed over the vote's timing.
The Bush administration, the Iraqi government and the Shia religious hierarchy all insist that the parliamentary election should go ahead as scheduled on Jan. 30, despite concerns about security and poor preparations. But the cleric's proposal could help sway the Shia establishment toward supporting a delay, as many Sunni Muslim groups have lobbied for.
Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitta, leader of a respected Shia religious family in Najaf, has been quietly floating his idea over the past two weeks in hopes of breaking the deadlock between Sunnis and Shias. Ghitta is pushing for a three-month extension, rather than the six-month delay demanded by Sunni groups.
"Holding elections under the current conditions is going to be very difficult," Ghitta said in a phone interview from Baghdad. "The delay would be effective if it is part of a program to end terrorism in Iraq. It would give us a reasonable period of time so that people will feel safe to go out and vote."
Without significant participation by the Sunni minority, many Iraqis fear the election would lack legitimacy and could drag the country toward civil war. Most Sunni political groups have urged a boycott if the vote goes ahead as planned. The election is for a 275-member National Assembly, which will appoint a central government and draft a permanent constitution that will govern Iraq for years to come.
Ghitta has presented the idea to Sunni political leader Adnan Pachachi and United Nations officials. But he has not yet taken the proposal to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shia cleric.
Al-Sistani has been adamant about holding to the Jan. 30 date. With al-Sistani's blessing, a coalition of 23 mostly Shia parties released a list of 228 candidates yesterday. The ayatollah-backed slate is likely to dominate the election because the Shia make up 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, and most devout Shias look to al-Sistani for guidance.
The coalition includes the three main Shia political parties that fought against Saddam Hussein's regime from exile: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Dawa Party, and the Iraqi National Congress, led by one-time Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi. Other candidates on the slate - dubbed the United Iraqi Alliance - include independent Sunni politicians, a Shia Kurdish group, members of the Yazidi minority religious sect and an ethnic Turkomen political party.
The list does not include supporters of firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia clashed for months with U.S. and Iraqi forces until it was disarmed in a deal brokered by al-Sistani. Although he is a young cleric with few religious credentials, al-Sadr is very popular in Iraq's Shia slums.
An aide in al-Sistani's Najaf office said the cleric had not received details of al-Ghitta's proposal. "Ayatollah al-Sistani's position is clear: He does not want a delay in the election," said the aide, who asked not to be identified. "The Iraqi people have already been waiting for a long time."
The aide dismissed concerns about a Sunni boycott and what it would mean for the election's legitimacy. "If some people decide not to participate in these elections, then they cannot claim that the elections are illegitimate," he said.
Al-Sistani, 73, has long eschewed direct involvement in politics. He is a proponent of the "quietist" school of Shiism, which rejects the Iranian model of absolute rule by clergy. But al-Sistani's success in dominating election plans has renewed fears that Iraq may end up with a theocracy.
A Sunni boycott of the election would reinforce those fears. Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population, have dominated the political system since Iraq gained its independence in 1932. Under Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime, the Shia and ethnic Kurds were brutally repressed.
Moderate Shia leaders like Ghitta warn that it would be a mistake to exclude Sunnis from the new political system. "For the elections to be seen as legitimate, the Sunnis have to participate," he said.
Ghitta is proposing a delay until April 30, giving the government of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi more time to secure Sunni parts of Iraq where the insurgency has been entrenched. It would also give election officials and politicians more time to organize the balloting and draw greater voter participation. But, Ghitta said, there can be no delays beyond April.
"We do not want the period to exceed April 2005," Ghitta said. "There should be guarantees from the international community that if the election is not organized by April, the current government would resign, because it will have failed."
Ghitta said al-Sistani could be persuaded to endorse a delay if there is a guarantee that it would not be open-ended. "Al-Sistani wants to be assured that the election will eventually be held," he said. A senior aide said Pachachi was seriously considering Ghitta's proposal. "We are willing to form a coalition with anybody, and Sheik Fatih is a very respected man," the aide said. "Of course, we would appreciate six months, but two months or three months is better than Jan. 30."
With the first democratic vote in Iraq's history, Ghitta said any delay would provide more time for education. "The people of Iraq," he said, "have not been instilled with the culture of elections."
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