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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 January, 2004, 21:58 GMT
Shia Muslims in show of power
By Dumeetha Luthra
BBC correspondent in Basra

Tens of thousands of Shia Muslims in the southern Iraqi city of Basra have taken part in a demonstration against American plans for the future government.

They are calling for the new national assembly to be chosen in direct elections, not selected indirectly as the US proposes.

Protesters in Basra, 15 January 2004
The protest passed off peacefully
This was a call to America to sit up and listen.

The majority Shia population has emerged from under the oppression of the previous regime and want a major role in the future of Iraq.

Mobilised by top Shia cleric Ayatollah Saeed Ali Hakim, tens of thousands rallied outside his mosque in Basra on Thursday.

Waving banners and flags they chanted: "No to America, yes to Iraqis."

Jasim Mousa, a fourth year student at Basra University said if required he would fall on his sword to protect his country.

"We will defend our rights and our Islamic rights to represent Iraqis," he said.

It was a warning to the Americans - we have the power and the influence, we can use it if we need to
The protesters surrounded the mosque and were packed into the streets. The mood was peaceful and jubilant.

Said Hakkim had called for a peaceful demonstration, and not a shot was fired.

It was a warning to the Americans - we have the power and the influence, we can use it if we need to.

Cleric's demands

One protester, Abdul Husain, said the peaceful protest should not be taken for an inability to fight and defend their rights.

Another demonstrator, Jasim Mousa, warned that while this demonstration may have been peaceful, that may not be true in the future.

"If the situation changes we will also change our means and methods to express our thoughts," he said.

The rally was called after the top Shia cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, rejected the current US plans for the handover to sovereignty.

With less than six months to go to the planned handover, he has hardened his position, calling for direct elections to the assembly that will choose the transitional government.

The US administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, says elections are simply not a logistical option, that there is no electoral register.

But he knows that without the support of Shia Muslims - who make up about 60% of the population - any future government will lack legitimacy.

The coalition authorities are now talking of a compromise where some of the regional caucuses for the assembly could be through elections using ration and identity cards.

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