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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 February, 2004, 11:59 GMT
Iraq cleric urges year-end polls
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani
Ayatollah Sistani is the most senior Shia cleric in Iraq
The leading Shia cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called for elections by the end of 2004.

He said he wanted guarantees from the UN Security Council that there would be no further delays to the polls.

Ayatollah Sistani had wanted elections before the transfer of power to the Iraqis from the coalition on 30 June.

But a UN report published on 23 February said a "credible" vote could only be held at the end of the year at the earliest.

In a written statement, the Shia leader said the unelected government appointed after the transfer of power should have strictly limited powers and should focus on preparing for elections.

"The religious Shia authority wants the body that will receive power at the end of June to have extended powers in order to prepare transparent and free elections but also urges it to run the country without taking important decisions," the statement said.


Following a UN fact-finding mission to Iraq, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told the Security Council that elections could be held within the year - provided that Iraqis agreed on how they should be held.

But he said that many obstacles to agreement remained.

Among these are the questions of how to transfer sovereignty by the end of June and establish a framework for elections.

Mr Annan has said the preparations for the general election will take at least eight months.

The US - the ocupying power - and Iraq's interim governors say they want elections to be held by 2005, after agreement on a new constitution.

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