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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 January, 2004, 11:50 GMT
Iraq's political temperature rises

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have demonstrated in the southern city of Basra in support of a call for early elections from the country's leading Shia cleric.

Shia objections are complicating American plans to hand over power to an appointed Iraqi government by 1 July.

Demonstrators in Basra
Many Iraqis took to Basra's streets to back calls for direct elections
As they begin to realise that self-government may be within their grasp, Iraq's religious and tribal leaders - and its new and old political parties - are jockeying for position.

The call for early elections from the leading Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sistani, is proving a powerful rallying-cry among his community.

Even the more secular Shia hold him in high regard.

And in any case the idea of standing up to the Americans - on such a universally upheld principle as electoral democracy - has wide appeal.

Kurdish calls

For the Kurds of the north the rallying-cry is federalism - not some vague formula for devolved power, but an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan including Kirkuk, a city in an oil-rich region and with a mixed and restive population of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.

The Kurds, like the Shia, seem in uncompromising mood.

The country's other main community - the Sunni Arabs - are watching this communal muscle-flexing with undisguised alarm.

Once the political elite, they now fear marginalisation - and a group of their religious leaders has now formed a council to defend Sunni interests.

No-one can be sure where all these political pressures are leading.

But as the Americans try to keep to their 1 July deadline, while struggling to reduce the number of attacks on their forces, the political temperature seems certain to rise.

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