Allawi's spokesman downplays chances the government will delay the Jan. 30 election; leading Shiite rejects option

Saturday, November 27th 2004, 10:01 am

By: News On 6

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's spokesman said Saturday the government was determined to hold the Jan. 30 elections on time despite calls by Sunni Muslim politicians to delay the balloting for six months because of deteriorating security.

About 17 Sunni Muslim politicians urged the government Friday to postpone the elections, in part to persuade Sunni clerics to abandon their call for a boycott and to enable the authorities to secure polling stations.

However, the interim constitution and the U.N. Security Council have mandated a ballot by the end of January to meet demands by religious leaders of the majority Shiite community, which has been insisting on elections since the early months of the U.S. military presence. A prominent Shiite figure said Saturday the timing of the election was ``nonnegotiable.''

``The Iraqi government is determined, as I told you before, to hold elections on time,'' said Allawi's spokesman, Thair al-Naqeeb. ``The Iraqi government led by the prime minister is calling for all spectra of the Iraqi people to participate in the elections and to contribute in the elections to build a strong democratic country.''

Al-Naqeeb said that boycotts do not serve ``the country or the future of Iraq and we hope that there won't be any boycott from any party whatsoever.''

Al-Naqeeb said Allawi ``considers seriously the responsibility given to him'' by the interim constitution and the Security Council ``to carry out elections at the end of January.''

``The prime minister deeply understands the importance of this opinion'' to delay the balloting ``but he also understands the insistence of other political parties and national figures for holding elections on time,'' al-Naqeeb said.

He was referring to, among others, the country's Shiite clerical hierarchy, which has insisted that the balloting be held on schedule.

In Najaf, Mohammed Hussein al-Hakim, son of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Said al-Hakim, told reporters that the Shiite religious establishment would not accept a delay. Al-Hakim said he was speaking in the name of the Shiite religious leadership, which includes the country's most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

``This is nonnegotiable,'' al-Hakim said. ``The elections have become part of the daily lives of Iraqis. ... I don't think the United Nations will agree to change the date because it was the one that set it. We have already reached advanced stages.''

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.''

Al-Naqeeb said the election commission assured Allawi they are ready to hold the election on Jan. 30 despite the security crisis in Sunni Muslim sections of central, northern and western Iraq.

The spokesman also said Allawi, a secular Shiite, was not convinced that delaying the election would guarantee broader participation. Sunni Muslim clerics have called for a boycott to protest the U.S.-led attack on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, and insurgent groups have dismissed the balloting.

Al-Naqeeb also denied that Allawi's Iraqi National Accord party joined in calling for a delay, although he confirmed that a member was present at a Friday meeting in which other groups issued the call.

``Yes, there were representatives from the party who were invited to the meeting yesterday,'' al-Naqeeb said. ``They did not participate in the statement. They were just listening to the other parties.''

On Saturday, about 100 insurgents attacked city hall and two police stations in Khalis, 40 miles north of Baghdad, said municipal official Saad Ahmed Abbas.

``They occupied the city hall for a while,'' Abbas said, adding that U.S. soldiers and Iraqi security forces regained control after a two-hour exchange of gunfire.

Ghassan al-Khadran, deputy of governor of Diyala province, said several rebels were killed and one policeman was injured in the shootout.

``The anti-Iraqi forces attacked the center using small arms and rocket-propelled grenades from the vicinity of a nearby school,'' the U.S. military said in a statement.

The attack came as U.S., British and Iraqi security forces continued their operation against suspected insurgent strongholds in a region south of Baghdad, around the cities of Latifiyah and Mahmoudiyah. A U.S. military spokesman said Saturday a total of 126 men suspected of launching attacks in the area had been arrested.

Also on Saturday, a U.S. soldier was killed when a roadside bomb exploded near a patrol about 40 miles north of Baghdad, the military said. The attack on the patrol from the 1st Infantry Division occurred near Duluiyah. An M1 Abrams battle tank also was damaged in the attack.

Three civilians died and a dozen were injured in Baghdad in separate bomb attacks against U.S. convoys.

In the town of Buhriz north of Baghdad, an official in the Iraqi Communist party was assassinated by unidentified assailants, a party spokesman said Saturday.

Two weeks ago, another prominent Communist Party official was gunned down with two of his bodyguards north of Baghdad. Iraq's Communist Party _ which was banned under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship _ cooperated closely with the U.S. occupation authorities and is now part of Allawi's interim government.

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