aqi Shiite Calls for New Election Law

IBAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's most influential Shiite religious leader called Friday for a new election law that would restore public confidence in the system and give voters the opportunity to bring "new faces" to power.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani emphasized support for the demonstrators in his weekly religious sermon, saying none of their demands have been met so far and that electoral reform should be a priority.

His comments came as protesters called for large protests to take place on Friday after one protester was killed and over 40 were wounded in renewed clashes overnight in central Baghdad.

At least 320 people have been killed and thousands have been wounded since the unrest began on Oct. 1, when protesters took to the streets in the tens of thousands outraged by what they said was widespread corruption, lack of job opportunities and poor basic services despite the country's oil wealth.

The latest clashes broke out late Thursday in Baghdad's Khilani Square, according to Iraqi medical and security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. The violence erupted hours after demonstrators celebrated Iraq's 2-1 World Cup qualifier win over Iran.

Demonstrations have mostly been taking place in Baghdad's Tahrir and Khilani squares and the predominantly Shiite southern provinces, following tough measures by Iraqi security forces to calm down on protests.

The powerful cleric, who's opinion holds major sway over Iraqis, said a fair electoral law should give voters the ability to replace current political leaders with "new faces."

"Passing a law that does not give such an opportunity to voters would be unacceptable and useless," he said in his weekly sermon Friday.

"If those in power think they can evade dealing with real reform by procrastination, they are mistaken," al-Sistani said. "What comes after the protests is not the same as before, so be careful," he warned.

He said corruption among the ruling elite has reached "unbearable limits" while large segments of the population are finding it increasingly impossible to have their basic needs met while top leaders "share the country's wealth among themselves and disregard each other's corruption."

"People did not go out to demonstrations calling for reform in this unprecedented way, and do not continue to do so despite the heavy price and grave sacrifices it requires, except because they found no other way to revolt against the corruption which is getting worse day after day, and the rampant deterioration on all fronts," he said.

On Monday, al-Sistani said he backed a roadmap by the U.N. mission in Iraq aimed at meeting the demands of the protesters, but expressed concern that political parties were not serious about carrying out the proposed reforms.

(KR)