(IPS) KARBALA --
what could be a major challenge to the U.S. Authority in Iraq, the most influential Shiite scholar, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, threatened Jan. 16 to call for civil disobedience if the U.S.-led occupation authority did not rescind its plan to form an Iraqi government without direct elections.
"In the coming days, we are going to see protests and strikes and perhaps a confrontation with the occupying force if it insists on its colonial plans and designing the country's politics for its own interests," said Sheikh Abdel Mahdi al-Karbalai, Sistani's representative in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
"We tell you to support the Marja's call for general elections. The Marja will do all in its power to stop those who would throw away the rights of the Iraqi people and will not give up its cause," he told a crowd of hundreds.
Karbalai used the term Marja to refer to the elite group of scholars, headed by Sistani, to whom Iraq's Shiites -- so far not adopting a confrontational stance against the occupation -- look for spiritual guidance.
Karbalai, like other top aides to Sistani, often delivers the scholar's teaching in sermons on Friday, the Islamic world's traditional day of rest.
His words had added significance as they were delivered at the Shrine of Hussein, one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites, 110 kilometers (68 miles) south of Baghdad, the burial site of the Muslim prophet Mohammed's grandson, Hussein.
Sistani has demanded general elections before Washington returns sovereignty in less than six months time.
In the south, in Basra, thousands of Shiites showed their solidarity with 73-year-old Sistani Thursday, demonstrating against the U.S. plans for erecting a national government without conducting polls.
Bremer has said there is not enough time to hold elections before a handover of sovereignty due to lack of electoral registers and polling laws.
On Thursday, an aide to Sistani told Reuters in Kuwait that if the scholar formally rejected the U.S. plan, Iraqis would never support it.
"If (Sistani) issues a fatwa (edict) all the Iraqi people will go out in protest marches and demonstrations against the coalition forces," Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Mohri said.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of the southern city of Basra, in support of Sistani's demand on Thursday.
And another top Shiite leader wrote to the U.S. President and British Prime Minister Tony Blair questioning their sincerity over the transfer of power to the Iraqis.
Hojat Al-Islam Ali Abdulhakim Alsafi said the transition plan had more to do with U.S. elections than Iraqi interests.
Sunni imams joined forces with Shiites in the speeches of Friday prayers in Baghdad and other Iraqi areas.
With the announcement in November of the occupation's decision to establish an independent Iraq by July 1 without holding elections, Sistani has dug in his heels.
Last Sunday, he appeared to shut the door on compromise, telling a delegation from the handpicked U.S.-led Governing Council that there was no good reason not to hold polls to choose the nation's next leaders.
He insisted elections could be held in the coming months.
Since then, Bremer's team and the Council have looked at ways to expand their proposed regional caucus system -- under a November 15 agreement -- for selecting the transitional government.
But the two sides' relations have never been more tense.
Sistani's threat came as an Iraqi official delegation headed to the United Nations Friday for talks on the country's future.
The delegation includes president of U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) Adnan Pachachi and Foreign Minister Hoshiar Zibari.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan will meet with Pachachi and U.S. civil administrator Paul Bremer Monday, January 19, for talks on the UN's return to the country, Zibari was quoted by Agence France-Presse (AFP) as saying.
"We are going to hear what the United Nations has to say more than anything else because the invitation is coming from them," Zebari said, shortly before departure from a U.S. military facility at Baghdad's international airport.
"The starting point in my opinion is the return of the United Nations to Iraq and the reopening of its office," he said.
Annan pulled non-Iraqi UN staff out of the country after attacks on aid agencies, including a bombing which killed the senior UN official in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 21 others at the world body's Baghdad headquarters in August.
Washington, which went to invade Iraq without the backing of most of the Security Council, has for months resisted a wider UN role in post-invasion Iraq.
But it is now trying to persuade the United Nations to return to Iraq to in the hope that this will persuade Iraqis to back a widely-rejected power transferred plan.
The situation on the ground is also dented with tension, as three people were killed and two others wounded late Thursday when a university bus carrying students struck an explosive device near Tikrit.
The U.S. military said Friday that three Iraqi civilians were injured when resistance fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades at a U.S. troops in the flashpoint town of Fallujah earlier this week.
Police in the northern town of Mosul said two officer were injured Thursday in the latest attacks on law enforcers in the city.
A plane carrying Georgia's Defense Minister David Tevzadze was shot at as it took off from Baghdad's airport to return to the Caucasus country overnight, but no one was hurt in the attack, officials said Friday.
"The plane made a maneuver and coalition helicopters opened return fire," Koba Kobaladze, Georgia's national guard chief traveling with the minister, told reporters upon returning to Tbilisi.
Tevzadze flew to Iraq for one day to inspect Georgian soldiers who are serving as part of the US-led peacekeeping force there.
Georgia sent 70 elite troops, doctors and mine-clearing experts to Iraq in August. They are due to return in February, to be replaced by 200 troops who will include special forces.
Anti-American sentiments are rising among ordinary Iraqis, as may call for an end to occupation and return of the situation to normal in the oil-rich country.
Hundreds of people took to the streets of the southern city of Amara on January 11, a day after six Iraqis were killed when British troops and Iraqi police opened fire on a job rally.
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