By Khaled Farhan
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's most senior Shi'ite Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, warned on Sunday of increased political tensions and violence if elections are not held within months.
Sistani dented Washington's hopes of winning his backing for its plan to hand over power to Iraqis, as fresh violence erupted in three Iraqi cities and towns. No casualties were reported in the violence that ranged from a bombing to stone-throwing.
Officials from the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council went to the Shi'ite city of Najaf to meet Sistani to try to persuade him to back Washington's plan. Shi'ites make up the majority of Iraq's population.
Sistani wants a transitional assembly due to come into being in mid-year to be directly elected, and refused to back down after meeting the Governing Council officials.
"New problems will arise as a result of this that will only worsen the tensions in the political and security situation," Sistani's office quoted him as telling the delegation.
If Sistani does not support the U.S. plan, many Shi'ites may refuse to accept the process. Shi'ites were repressed during three decades of iron rule by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim.
"The ideal mechanism...is elections which a number of experts confirm can be held within coming months with an acceptable degree of credibility and transparency," said Sistani.
"If the transitional assembly is formed by a mechanism that doesn't have the necessary legitimacy, it wouldn't be possible for the government to perform a useful function."
NO RELIABLE CENSUS
Most members of the Governing Council say Iraq's instability makes full elections impossible for now. Also, no reliable census has been held for years.
Under the U.S. plan, regional caucuses would select a transitional Iraqi assembly by the end of May, and the assembly would choose an interim government to take over sovereignty by the end of June. Full elections would follow in 2005.
The plan has also been beset by disputes over the amount of autonomy and territory to be given to Kurds, who have run a self-governing zone in northern Iraq since wresting it from Saddam after the 1991 Gulf War.
A planned new constitution would ensure a federal structure for Iraq, but many Kurds are pushing for control over a wider swathe of territory including the strategic oil hub of Kirkuk.
That has prompted violent protests by Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk, and has alarmed neighboring Turkey.
Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi said on Sunday Kurdish leaders and the Governing Council decided at a meeting this month to preserve the status quo for now.
In the city of Mosul, an official from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) said two mortar shells hit the roof of the party's headquarters on Sunday, and two hit nearby houses.
BOMB AT KURDISH PARTY OFFICES
In Kirkuk, a bomb exploded near the main PUK offices, but police said they did not know if the target was the PUK or a nearby mosque. Shortly afterwards, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at another PUK office.
A small crowd hurled stones at British troops in riot gear in the town of Amara. Mainly Shi'ite southern Iraq has been much more peaceful than the Sunni heartland around Baghdad.
The clash followed the deaths of at least five Iraqis in Amara on Saturday when Iraqi police and British troops opened fire during violent protests over unemployment. The British said they fired when some protesters threw grenades.
Foreign companies attending an international conference on Iraq's reconstruction in Jordan said security problems would not deter them from pursuing a piece of the reconstruction pie.
"The United States is giving (Iraqis) a lot of money and we want to be in on that," said Tom Spencer, vice president of business development at U.S. defense systems firm Kollsman.
About 300 companies -- mostly from countries that supported the U.S.-led war in Iraq -- were represented at the conference in Amman attended by U.S. officials in charge of divvying out $18.6 billion in U.S.-funded contracts.
The first $5 billion of contracts is due to be awarded at a trade fair in Baghdad in March. Countries that did not back the war, including France, Germany, Russia and Canada, were barred from competing for the contracts. (Additional reporting by Fiona O'Brien and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Baghdad, Haider Saladdin in Amara and Lin Noueihed in Amman)