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Tension Builds as Iraqis Await U.N. Decision on Feasibility of Elections

By Jeffrey Gettleman

The New York Times -- NAJAF, Iraq

The air in this town crackles with the tension of a courtroom waiting for a verdict.

A U.N. statement on the feasibility of holding elections before the June 30 transfer of power in Iraq is expected this week. And nowhere is the n ews awaited more anxiously than here, the heart of Iraq’s Shiite population and home to the influential Muslim cleric pushing for elections in place of the caucus-style system favored by the Americans.

Men slapping down backgammon chips in tea houses are talking about it. So is the boy selling steaming bowls of chickpeas from a dented metal cart. The hope of early elections -- and the troubles that could be unleashed if self-rule is postponed -- has monopolized conversation here, said Hussein al-Zamily, an official of the Dawa political party.

“The worries are increasing,” Zamily said. “If the U.N. goes our way, there will be peace. If they don’t, it will be harder for the religious leaders to maintain control. Every phrase of their statement will matter, every word.”

L. Paul Bremer, the top American adviser in Iraq, said Monday that he expected that the United Nations would issue its opinion by the end of this week on whether conditions in Iraq would permit organizing elections before June 30, when the Bush administration wants to turn over sovereignty.

Under the American plan, local leaders would select members of an assembly, which would then form an interim government. National elections would be held by the end of next year. Shiite leaders say the fairest way to build democracy would be with direct elections this year. Other groups, like Sunnis and Kurds, fear that such elections would favor the Shiites, who are a majority in Iraq.

The U.N. special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who traveled to Iraq last week, was in Dubai on Monday and was to return to New York on Wednesday to begin meeting with Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the election issue, diplomats at the United Nations said.

But the Shiites are not simply waiting. Amid the green Shiite flags and blue-domed mosques and shops crammed with portraits of Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad and a central figure in Shiite Islam, a furious discussion is taking place. Though Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, has urged followers to refrain from action until the United Nations reaches its decision, many Shiite leaders are beginning to air alternative ways of creating a new government.

One would be to shrink the Iraq Governing Council, whose 25 members were selected by the American-led occupation authorities.