Iraq's Shia Muslims march to demand early elections

Tens of thousands of Shia Muslims marched through the streets of Basra yesterday demanding early elections for an Iraqi national assembly. They shouted: "No to America" and "Yes to Sistani", after their spiritual leader, Ali Sistani, demanded elections.

The march, attended by 20,000 to 30,000 people, shows that Iraq's Shia Muslims, some 60 per cent of the population, who were denied power by Saddam Hussein, are increasingly fearful that they will be denied political power if a new assembly is selected indirectly by caucuses. The Shias in the south of the Iraq, even more impoverished than people in the rest of the country, are also deeply resentful at the failure of the US-led coalition and the interim Iraqi Governing Council to improve their standard of living nine months after the fall of Baghdad.

The issue has prompted several demonstrations and riots in southern cities such as Amara and Kut, both on the Tigris between Basra and Baghdad, over the past week in which police have opened fire on demonstrators demanding jobs.

In Kut, its streets filled with evil-smelling pools of muddy water after recent rains, the authorities were taking no chances yesterday. Police armed with sub-machine-guns had sealed of the mayor's office, the target of protesters' anger in a riot earlier this week in which one man was killed and three were wounded. Other men in leather jackets, also carrying Kalashnikovs, were on every street corner.

In an effort to quell the anger of the unemployed, which describes most of Kut's population, the authorities had organised a lottery inside a sports stadium where 2,000 applicants were trying for 150 jobs in the border police. Most of those waiting had been soldiers in the Iraqi army before it was disbanded in May by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. Wahab Hashim said: "Most of us were privates and we only got about $25 (£13.70) a month, but at least it was something."

A hard-faced police lieutenant named Mohammed Nasser, clutching his gun, was quick to explain that the riots earlier in the week had been "organised by foreigners, Syrians, probably, or members of al-Qa'ida, maybe Somalis".

This also turned out to be the official line from the mayor's office, where Nia'ma Sultan Bash-Agha was holding court. The "troublemakers" and "terrorists" had come from other parts of Iraq.

Behind him on the wall was a picture by a local artist showing a snake, representing Saddam, sitting on a pile of skulls and bones, being strangled by a hand with the US and Iraqi flags draped over itsforearm.

Kut is a Shia town but the ex-soldiers were less interested in religion than a desperate desire for employment. A soldier was sitting in a truck guarding an enormous heap of job applications. Hamid Sasa, a graduate from the Technology Institute in Mosul, said: "I tried everywhere looking for a job - health, education, the police - but they have few jobs to give and when they do, they give them to their friends, their relatives or people who pay them bribes."

Omar Hussein, a neatly dressed student who had studied to be an electrician, said that there was another problem: "After the fall of Saddam Hussein the opposition parties came here and have taken all the jobs. They ask if Saddam murdered any of your relatives and if he did not they will not help you."

He added that Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) had taken charge in Kut, but has little support.

A problem for the US is that the exile parties such as Dawa and Sciri, well represented on the Governing Council in Baghdad, are often considered carpet-baggers in cities like Kut where they have few roots.

The Americans are distant in Kut; most Allied troops are from the Ukrainian army. They are regarded with some contempt mixed with pity by local people. Omar Hussein said: "They are really hopeless - even poorer than we are. Anybody can bribe them with a cigarette. They send one patrol a night into the city to show they are here, but otherwise they don't do anything."

There is no nostalgia for Saddam's rule in Kut, but it has become conventional wisdom among the people of the city that they have fewer jobs and their economic situation is worse than a year ago.

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