Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani's insistence that Iraqi voters choose a transitional legislature has jeopardized a U.S. plan to transfer power to Iraqis and end the U.S. occupation of Iraq by July 1.
The American plan involves choosing lawmakers in 18 regional caucuses to be held across the country in May. The assembly would then appoint a provisional government that would govern until elections in 2005.
Coalition officials maintain there is not enough time to hold legislative elections before the power transfer because of the unstable security situation and the absence of voter rolls and an election law.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is considering a U.S. request to send a team to Iraq to see if elections are possible before June 30. Washington hopes the team will convince al-Sistani to drop his election demand.
In other developments:
During a press conference Wednesday, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shiite member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, said he believed al-Sistani would accept the U.N. verdict — based on his recent talks with the ayatollah.
"Based on my conversation with him, if the U.N. team comes and holds a dialogue with the Iraqi side (on) census and electoral matters ... one of the parties may be convinced of what the other party says," al-Jaafari told reporters. "Whatever the outcome, if they reach an agreement, I think al-Sistani will accept it."
U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer has offered to broaden participation in the caucus system to accommodate al-Sistani's demands but insists that the July 1 deadline for transferring sovereignty is final.
Tens of thousands of Shiites have marched in Baghdad and other cities this week in support of al-Sistani's demand.
If al-Sistani sticks by his election call, coalition officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that several options were under consideration, including transferring sovereignty to the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.
However, coalition spokesman Charles Heatly on Wednesday denied that "other options such as handing over authority to the Governing Council on the first of July are under serious consideration."
"We're looking forward to the possible deployment of a U.N. technical team and to hearing its assessment," Heatly told the AP. "Meanwhile, we're moving ahead with implementing the Nov. 15 agreement."
Iraqi Shiites, who form an estimated 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, have generally refrained from attacks on coalition forces. Most of the insurgents are believed to be Arab Sunnis, including members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Bush said U.S. forces here "are dealing with these thugs in Iraq, just as surely as we dealt with Saddam Hussein's evil regime."
"As democracy takes hold in Iraq, the enemies of freedom will do all in their power to spread violence and fear ... but the United States of America will never be intimidated by thugs and assassins. The killers will fail, and the Iraqi people will live in freedom."
In Baghdad, a U.S. general said Iraq's new army would need tens of thousands of soldiers equipped with battle tanks and attack aircraft to defend itself after the U.S.-led coalition pulls out.
Current plans call for the coalition to train three light infantry divisions — or more than 20,000 men — in the coming months, said Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who is heading the training effort. He said the eventual size of Iraq's military would be up to the policy makers who must decide how much to spend on defense.
"This is a tough neighborhood and three light infantry division do not provide, and will not provide, the endstate defensive requirement for the Iraqi ground forces. It never was intended to be so," he said.