The Iraqi government Saturday brushed aside Sunni Muslim demands to delay the Jan. 30 election, and a spokesman for the majority Shiite community called the date "nonnegotiable." Insurgents stepped up attacks, blasting U.S. patrols in Baghdad and killing a U.S. soldier with a roadside bomb north of the capital.
There were also clashes north of Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces fought a three-hour gun battle with insurgents who overran a town hall and two police stations, local officials said.
Talk of delaying the election gained momentum after influential Sunni Muslim politicians urged the government to postpone the voting for six months to give authorities time to secure polling stations and to persuade Sunni clerics to abandon their call for an electoral boycott.
Sunni elder statesman Adnan Pachachi said Saturday that a movement to put off the elections was gaining traction. CBS News reporter Charles D'Agata describes Pachachi as "a much-respected elder statesman in Iraq, a Sunni moderate with the backing of the United States and the U.N."
D'Agata says 17 major political parties joined discussions at Pachachi's home, and 15 signed a petition seeking a postponement. A representative of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's party was there, though he didn't sign the docoument, D'Agata reports.
A spokesman for Allawi, a secular Shiite, told reporters Saturday that the government was sticking by the Jan. 30 date after receiving assurances from the Iraqi Electoral Commission that an election could take place even in Sunni areas wracked by insurgency.
"The Iraqi government is determined ... to hold elections on time," spokesman Thair al-Naqeeb said. "The Iraqi government, led by the prime minister, is calling on all spectra of the Iraqi people to participate in the elections and to contribute in the elections to build a strong democratic country."
That position was strongly endorsed Saturday by politicians and clerics from the Shiite community, which comprises about 60 percent of Iraq's nearly 26 million people and has long been clamoring for an election.
"It would be a setback to President Bush's policy in Iraq, were the election to be delayed," notes CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller, "but Iraq is now sovereign, and he cannot be seen imposing his timetable for a vote."
In other developments:
In the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Mohammed Hussein al-Hakim, son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Said al-Hakim, told reporters the Shiite leadership would not accept a delay and called this position "nonnegotiable."
He said elections were "the most legitimate way on the international level to express the will of the people" and that "all parties have agreed on this date and we cannot take back this position for any reason."
In Baghdad, a major Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Republic in Iraq or SCIRI, said 42 parties and individuals from the Shiite and Turkomen communities had agreed on a statement affirming support for the Jan. 30 date.
SCIRI official Redha Jawad Taqi said the 42 included the Islamic Dawa, the other leading Shiite party, and the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmad Chalabi, whose spokesman Entifadh Qanbar had already criticized the postponement call.
Still, insurgent violence continues to grip the Sunni areas despite the U.S.-led assault this month on the main insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad. The attack was launched to try to curb the insurgency so elections could be held nationwide.
An American soldier from the 1st Infantry Division was killed Saturday when a roadside bomb exploded near a U.S. patrol about 40 miles north of Baghdad, the military said.
Two U.S. military vehicles, including an armored shuttle bus, were damaged by a bomb Saturday on the road to Baghdad International Airport, which the State Department considers one of the most dangerous routes in the country. An al Qaeda-affiliated group claimed responsibility for the attack.
Three civilians died and a dozen were injured Saturday in other bomb attacks against U.S. convoys in the Baghdad area, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.
About 100 insurgents overran the city hall and two police stations in Khalis, 40 miles north of the capital, but were driven off by American and Iraqi forces after a three-hour gun battle, municipal official Saad Ahmed Abbas said. Al-Jazeera television said three Iraqi security guards were killed.
South of the capital, U.S., British and Iraqi security forces continued operations against suspected insurgent strongholds near the towns of Latifiyah and Mahmoudiya. A U.S. military spokesman said Saturday a total of 126 suspected insurgents have been arrested since the operation began Tuesday.
In addition to the attacks, officials report a massive intimidation campaign by insurgents who have threatened to kill candidates and others who take part in the January balloting. Sunni clerics have urged a boycott to protest the Fallujah attack.
Although Sunni Arabs comprise only about 20 percent of the population, a widespread boycott by the influential community would cost the new government much-needed legitimacy in the eyes of millions of Iraqis.
Shiites have generally refrained from joining the Sunni-led insurgency, believing they will gain power in Iraq anyway through elections because of their force of numbers. Shiite clerics for the most part avoided public criticism of the Fallujah attack.
Differences between Shiites and Sunnis over the election issue threatens to widen the gap between the two rival communities at a time when U.S. and Iraqi officials are appealing for national unity.
U.N. and U.S. officials agreed to a January election in a deal with the powerful Shiite clerical leadership in order to win support for the American formula for transferring power to the Iraqis after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003.
"If the nation was deprived of this right, I am afraid that many of the Iraqis who remained patient and waited to see a national government will be frustrated and ... will resort to other means which we don't want to see," Hussain al-Shahristani, a prominent Shiite nuclear scientist, told The Associated Press.