Thousands of Shiite Muslims hit the streets of four Iraqi cities on Tuesday, calling on the United States to hand over Saddam Hussein to be tried as a war criminal and demanding a bigger say in their political future.
The fresh rallies followed a march through Baghdad on Monday by tens of thousands of people from the majority Shiite community demanding direct elections to decide who controls Iraq when the United States hands back power in June.
Many of Tuesday’s protesters were supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr, a firebrand religious leader who has expressed support for Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Sistani and his followers, long persecuted by Saddam, have proven a thorn for the United States by opposing its plans to let regional caucuses appoint a transitional authority to take power at the end of June, instead of letting all Iraqis vote.
“We demand elections or we will bury every American here,” said one Shiite cleric, Sattar Jabbar.
Saddam — dead or alive
In the southern Shiite city of Basra, several thousand protesters demanded Saddam be executed. “We want Saddam dead or alive. We demand Saddam’s execution,” they chanted.
In Baghdad and the Shiite holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf, similar numbers demanded Saddam be declared a war criminal and handed over for trial soon.
The United States declared Saddam a prisoner of war on January 9 following his capture the previous month.
Washington has said his status may be changed further down the line, and that he will eventually be handed over to Iraqi authorities to be tried under a special tribunal set up to account for his murderous rule.
But many Iraqis distrust Washington, and are worried they will not get a chance to bring Saddam to justice.
No time for elections?
In New York, diplomats said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was expected to decide within a week whether to send a political team to Iraq to tackle the Shiite calls for polls.
Washington, which went to war in Iraq without the backing of most of the U.N. Security Council and for months opposed a wider U.N. role in Iraq, now wants the world body to help by convincing Iraqis elections cannot be held yet.
Iraqis on Tuesday said they welcomed the prospect of the United Nations playing a role, but many insisted the process must include early elections.
“Absolutely. They should return to organize the transfer of power,” said Usama al-Kaissi, a civil engineer shopping at a market opposite the U.N.’s Baghdad headquarters, still scarred by a truck bomb attack in August that killed 22 people.
Shi’ites account for about 60 percent of Iraqis, and some analysts say their support for direct elections is aimed at cementing their community’s role in politics. But some Sunnis and Christians have also joined protests.
Annan on Monday indicated he would accept a request from top American, British and Iraqi officials to send a mission to examine the feasibility of direct elections and alternatives.
He has already said there may not be time for free and fair elections and repeated this on Monday.
But a U.N. official said Annan needed to wait until a four-member security team, about to go to Iraq, assessed the situation before announcing his decision on a mission.
Annan pulled out international U.N. staff last year following two suicide attacks on the Baghdad headquarters.
In a boost to the U.S.-led reconstruction efforts, the Gulf states of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates pledged on Tuesday to waive most of the more than $7 billion Iraq owes them.
The United States sees freeing Iraq of its estimated $120 billion in debt as key to reviving the economy.