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updated 9/23/2004 7:21:02 AM ET 2004-09-23T11:21:02

Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric wants general elections in the country to take place on time and under U.N. supervision to make them "credible and transparent," one of his top aides said Thursday.

Hamed al-Khafaf, an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, told The Associated Press that the poor security situation should not be taken as a pretext to postpone the general elections scheduled to take place before the end of January.

"His eminence, Sayyed al-Sistani, stresses the necessity of holding elections on time and the necessity of preparing the atmosphere ... under international supervision to be credible and transparent," al-Khafaf said in a telephone interview from Beirut, Lebanon.

In an interview with the New York Times, al-Khafar said that Sistani's aides had spoken with Lakhdar Brahimi -- the U.N. adviser who played a key role in crafting the plan for elections set in January -- in order to express concern that the poll may be delayed.

According to Times report, Sistani is growing increasingly concerned that the Iraqi political process is becoming dominated by large political parties with close ties to the American occupation and which are largely made up of exiles.

With car bombs, shootings and kidnappings around the county, many are worried Iraq will not be ready for elections by the deadline. Several areas west of Baghdad, such as the city of Fallujah, are out of government control. 

Varied Shiite leadership.
Last week, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that there could not be "credible elections if the security conditions continue as they are now."

But top Iraqi officials, including President Ghazi al-Yawer and interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi have insisted they will take place as scheduled -- in part because they know that the powerful Shiite clerical hierarchy is insisting on it.

Al-Khafaf stressed that the security situation should not be taken as an excuse for any delay.

"What if the security situation went on for 10 years?" he told the Associated Press.

The views of al-Sistani, an Iranian-born cleric, are respected by most of Iraq's Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people. Shiites are eager to translate their numbers into political power.

Al-Khafar said that even though Shiites are the majority in Iraq, it is impossible for a Shiite bloc to win majority in the elections because not all of them have the same political beliefs.

"There are different leaderships among Shiites. There are the nationalists, moderates, secular, hardliners and Marxists. It is the same when it comes to Sunni Muslims," said al-Khafaf, a close aide who represents al-Sistani in Lebanon.

Wary U.N.
Speaking at the United Nations on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United Nations and the European Union were ready to help ensure that Iraq holds elections for a parliament by providing financial and expert support.

The United Nations has been reluctant to commit more than the 35 election officials already authorized because of the danger of the assignment. In August 2003, the U.N. mission chief, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 other people were killed in a car bombing at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad.

Although he has traditionally shied away from political affairs, Sistani wields considerable influence in Iraq and his withdrawal of support could imperil the vote.

Last month, he brokered a deal that ended fighting in the holy city of Najaf between U.S. forces and insurgents loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr.

Sadr is a fiery cleric who commands a large following among Iraq’s dispossessed and is implacably opposed to both the interim government and the U.S. presence in the country.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.


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